How much of your freedom to communicate do you give up when you take a scientific job with the federal government? Do you need your employer's permission to tweet? What about to speak with the press or post on Facebook?
The answer depends on which agency you work for, according to a report released last month by the Union of Concerned Scientists. It graded 17 agencies on the openness of their media and social media policies (or lack thereof), and found that some agencies are relatively hands-off with their scientists, while others lag behind the transparency curve. These policies, which UCS had to obtain using FOIA in some cases, have an enormous impact on scientific discourse given the number of people who work for the federal government. There were 235,000 federally-employed scientists and engineers as of 2009, according to NSF.
UCS's methodology examined if the policies were clear, public, and promoted openness. To achieve high scores, the policies should allow scientists to state their personal views, to make the last review on technical statements, and to talk to the media directly. Traditional media and social media policies were scored separately.
The good news is that the situation has generally improved over the past six years. UCS graded agencies using a similar rubric in 2008 (the days before social media) and again in 2013. Most media policies improved to some degree since the initial set of grades.
The National Science Foundation was a star performer this year, receiving an "A" for media and a "B+" for social media. It received particular attention for providing employees the explicit right to final review on publications and exemplary language that clearly states employees are free to express their personal views. The US Geological Survey received a perfect "A+" on their social media policy, which includes the right of scientists to correct technical errors in information released through the agency's social media outlets. The Environmental Protection Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration also did quite well.
Several agencies have a long way to go before they catch up to their more media-savvy peers. The Department of Energy does not appear to have an agency-wide media policy, and provides only very basic guidance on social media, earning it an "Incomplete" grade. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which is part of the Department of Labor and earned an "F" grade in 2008, has a media policy that appears to be aimed at "controlling agency message rather than promoting transparency." It received "D" grades this year in both traditional and social media.
The next step may be to ensure that agencies are actually implementing the media policies they've written, which was not examined in the UCS report. Ultimately, strong policies hold the promise to create a culture of transparency and openness for the scientific information used by the federal government.
The full report, "Grading Government Transparency," and the detailed methodology are available on UCS's website.
Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and are not necessarily the opinions of AAAS, its officers, general members, and/or AAAS MemberCentral department or staff.