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Allow DOI experts to speak freely to the public

Unlike other federal departments such as the Department of Commerce, the Department of the Interior (DOI) currently lacks a strong policy governing how agency scientists and experts can interact with the public and the media. As a result, the ability of DOI scientists to speak freely about their research is not uniformly protected and varies from agency to agency within DOI.

Placing data sets on the website only gets us part of the way to government transparency. The next big step will involve changing the culture of the department and allowing its experts to provide for context and interpretation of those data sets.

Therefore, in order to promote transparency and the free exchange of scientific ideas, the DOI should adopt a department-wide communications policy that protects the right of its employees to speak with the public and the media. Such "open" communications policies have already been adopted at places like NASA and NOAA and should pose no problems at the DOI.

Any such policy should incorporate the following principles:

•Scientists and researchers may freely express their personal views. All federal employees have a right to express their personal views outside of a few narrow restrictions (such as releasing classified or proprietary information), provided that he or she makes an explicit disclaimer that he or she is speaking as a private citizen and is not seeking to represent official agency policy. He or she should be allowed to speak freely about his or her research and to offer his or her scientific analysis--even in situations where the research may be controversial or have implications for government policy. Agency policies governing communication with the media should make this option clear and explicit to employees.

•A scientist or researcher has the right to review, amend, and comment publicly on the final version of any document or publication that significantly relies on his or her research, identifies him or her as an author or contributor, or purports to represent his or her scientific opinion. While editing by non-scientists is often necessary and useful, final review by scientific experts is essential to ensuring that accuracy has been maintained in the clearance process.

•Agency employees have clearly defined responsibilities in working with the media. Employees are responsible for the accuracy and integrity of their communications and should not represent the agency on issues of politics or policy without prior approval from the agency’s public affairs officer (PAO). Employees are also responsible for working with the PAO to make significant research developments accessible and comprehensible to the public.

•PAOs have clearly defined roles, such as responding promptly to media inquiries and providing journalists and agency staff with accurate information, but not acting as "gatekeepers" of information. Scientists and researchers should not be required to obtain pre-approval from the PAO before responding to a media request about their research. However, it is appropriate to require scientists and researchers to give the PAO prior notice of such interactions when possible, and to recap the interview afterward.

•Public affairs staff should have a plan for disseminating the media policy to agency scientists and researchers and should conduct trainings in effective media communication that emphasize scientific openness. The official agency media policy should be publicly available on the agency website.

Timothy Donaghy

Scientific Integrity Analyst

Union of Concerned Scientists

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Comments

  1. Comment
    siderwhite

    The DOI must improve its media policy to allow free and open communication among scientists, the media, policy makers, and the public. Strong policies that protect the ability of scientists to communicate and participate fully in their scientific communities are essential components of an open and accountable government. Government must be by the people and for the people and not for a particular political party and its opinions!