A Tool for Whistle-Blowers

Union of Concerned Scientists has launched a tool for federal employees to report political meddling in science and research. It’s the latest way science advocates are responding to what they see as the Trump administration’s anti-science policies.

August 16, 2017
 

Since President Trump's election, science advocates have become increasingly vocal in opposing actions by his administration, from signing letters of condemnation to marching in the streets and jumping into campaigns for political office.

The Union of Concerned Scientists this month, however, launched an effort that it hopes will promote quieter efforts to defend the independence of science and research. Dubbed the Science Protection Project, the group aims to create an outlet for federal employees and contractors to securely report attempts at political influence over science in the policy-making process.

UCS has set up a SecureDrop server, as well as protected email and text message accounts. It's also advertising a hotline that will be staffed Wednesday afternoons to take tips and a physical mailing address to seek legal advice. Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the group isn't seeking classified information or unlawful disclosures.

"If a scientist is having trouble getting information or getting their research out, we want to know about it," he said. "This will be a conduit for information to make it to the public that should be in the public domain."

Disclosures through the project may also point UCS in the right direction to file Freedom of Information Act requests or make reports to inspectors general about allegations of political interference in scientific work.

Among the kinds of reports the group is seeking: removal of public access to scientific data, pressure to alter or "water down" reports, and violations of scientific integrity policies.

Halpern said UCS did much of the same kind of work under the Obama administration, including the use of FOIA requests to scrutinize industry's influence in shaping the work of the Environmental Protection Agency on fracking. "The sidelining of inconvenient facts is not unique to any one administration," he said.

But the group believes the number of cabinet-level officials who have declared themselves in opposition to the mission of the agencies they lead, as well as the increasing surveillance of federal employees, makes a project like this one important now.

The project has already received backing from other pro-science advocacy groups. The March for Science has promoted the project to its followers through social media.

"We wanted to shed a light on this project because we believe science -- whether conducted within the federal government or not -- should be defended from partisan attacks," a spokeswoman for the March for Science said. "Our community is not made up entirely of scientists, but if our sharing a resource like this leads to even one federal scientist in our network finding the support they need to protect their research from partisan meddling, we will have productively used the March for Science platform to further our movement's efforts to support science in the public interest."

UCS and other science advocacy groups have long worked with scientists to protect their legal rights. The American Geophysical Union and the Climate Science Legal Defense Fund for the past five years have run a legal education program for scientists. Chris McEntee, the executive director and CEO of the American Geophysical Union, said the concerns all of those efforts are addressing are not new.

"I would say that there is increasing fear and trepidation that scientists will not be able to share information in an open and objective manner," she said.

Robert Proctor, a professor of the history of science at Stanford University, praised the project as a tool to push back against ignorance.

"If we can trace the mechanisms by which ignorance is being spread, we have a chance of getting the truth out and keeping science alive," he said.

Halpern said his preference is that there would be little reason for complaints about improper political meddling. UCS wants government to function, he said, but efforts like the project could make government officials think twice about censoring or otherwise undermining federal scientific capacity.

"The fact that it exists sends a signal to federal employees that there are entities out there that have their back and support them," he said.

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