Federal Scientists Face Official Barriers in Publishing

WASHINGTON, Dec. 10, 2018 – Official promises to make federal scientific research transparent are belied by a maze of agency policies that prevent its publication, according to a new legal analysis by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).  Political censorship or suppression of research can still occur in science-based agencies while scientists have little legal recourse if their work is altered or squelched.

Despite repeated congressional and presidential proclamations on the importance of federal scientists being able to publish in peer-reviewed publications, there are no clear, overarching, or enforceable rules to that effect.  A PEER analysis of policies in effect at 18 cabinet or independent agencies, as well as seven sub-cabinet departments and two arms of the White House reveals that most limit or prohibit publication –

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  • Several Agencies explicitly require official approval before a scientist or specialist may submit any research for publication. Some agencies limit this review to work-related publications;
  • Some agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior, have no publication policy at all, leaving scientists uncertain about what they may do; and
  • Other agencies have conflicting rules, while still others prohibit certain publications altogether.

By contrast, only a handful of agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, explicitly sanction staff specialists to seek publication without prior official review.

“There is no rational reason why a scientist from the Marine Mammal Commission should be able to publish while a marine scientist from NOAA may not,” argued PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and lawyer formerly with EPA.  “Publication free from political censorship is an important tool for transparency and an effective check against the proliferation of ‘alternative facts.'”

The uncertainties are compounded by the lack of legal protection for scientists whose publications cause official displeasure. Currently, a federal scientist who chooses to publish on any subject of controversy takes a big career risk if that work does not support or has implications that conflict with agency positions.

“For many federal scientists the professional reality is publish and perish,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, contrasting the academic model where career advancement requires publication. “The American public pays for this research but does not enjoy the fruits of that investment when the research remains locked away.”

PEER is calling on the new Congress to adopt law, comparable to the Whistleblower Protection Act, establishing a clear and enforceable open publication policy in all civilian agencies.

Read the PEER analysis

View each agency’s policy