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Skapp Project Issues Recommendations on Improving Government Science

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cover image of Advancing Science in the Public's Interest

Credit: The Scientists in Government Project

A new report from the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy's (SKAPP) Scientists in Government project at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services concludes that policies regarding the roles and responsibilities of federal scientists need to be consistent across federal agencies and clearly communicated to the scientific workforce. As the one-year anniversary of President Obama's signing of his Memorandum on Scientific Integrity approaches, the report Strengthening Science in Government: Advancing Science in the Public's Interest identifies concrete steps that agencies and the executive branch can take to strengthen federal science.

"For the nation to tackle the pressing health and environmental issues we're facing, federal agencies must have talented scientists doing top-quality work," explains lead author Susan F. Wood, Ph.D. "Improving the scientific work environments at federal agencies will allow our nation's scientific workforce to contribute most effectively to these critical agency missions."

From May 2008 through January 2009, the Scientists in Government project conducted 37 semi-structured, in-depth, confidential interviews with individuals working on environmental and health-related issues at 13 different federal agencies. A literature review and review of publicly available online agency policies regarding scientific research were also conducted.

A follow-up survey conducted in July and August 2009 found that most subjects did not view conditions at their agencies as having improved noticeably since the change in administration. "Effecting change at large federal agencies will take time and a great deal of effort," says Wood. "But it is essential that these changes occur."

The qualitative research study and policy analysis conducted by SKAPP researchers has yielded recommendations on a wide range of issues affecting scientists working for federal agencies. In-depth interviews with scientists from federal agencies found that morale is low and eroding, and existing agency policies seem insufficient to address scientists' concerns.

Critical issues affecting morale include continually shifting priorities, burdensome bureaucratic processes, inadequate resources and perceptions of agency principles being undermined by external pressures. To address these problems, recommendations for agencies include:

  • Improving management training and overall management approaches for scientific projects and staff, including promoting opportunities for honest feedback without fear of retaliation;
  • Minimizing the bureaucratic maze needed to initiate new research and to allow for publication or other dissemination of research results, with or without disclaimers;
  • Providing the opportunity for scientists to communicate with the public, while also providing any support or training that scientists need to improve their skills in public communication;
  • Promoting engagement with federal scientists at other agencies and with the larger scientific community, including sharing of data and professional opportunities; and
  • Minimizing the impact of inappropriate influence from non-scientific directions, while recognizing the appropriate role of elected officials and the public in shaping the mission and policies of the agencies.

The report's overarching recommendation is to ensure policy consistency and clear communication across federal science-based agencies. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and Office of Management and Budget have a critical role in ensuring that agencies adopt policies that create environments conducive to conducting strong science.


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