Government Scientists Seek Protection Under New Whistleblower Bill

Government Scientists Seek Protection Under New Whistleblower Bill


WASHINGTON, DC, March 19, 2008 (ENS) – Four dozen groups spanning the political spectrum sent a letter to the U.S. Senate Tuesday urging lawmakers to include scientists who work for the federal government in pending legislation designed to strengthen protection for whistleblowers.

The coalition of academic, consumer, environmental, government reform and health groups, which includes the Consumer Federation of America, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and the Federation of American Scientists, was organized by the Union of Concerned Scientists, UCS.

"Scientists are less inclined to speak out when they have no protection against retaliation," said Francesca Grifo, director of the UCS Scientific Integrity Program.

"We must encourage federal scientists to report when research is censored or manipulated," she said. "Bringing misconduct to light can help protect American families from unsafe consumer products, unsafe drugs, and a polluted environment."

Sometime in the next few weeks the House and Senate are expected to reconcile differences between their versions of the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act.

In general, both versions strengthen protections for federal workers who report waste, fraud and abuse. But the final bill may not extend those protections to federal scientists who speak out when federal research is distorted or suppressed. The House legislation includes specific protections for scientists, but the Senate version does not.

"Federal government scientists play a crucial role in providing data and scientific analyses to policy makers so they can make the best, most informed decisions about our environment, health and national security," the coalition letter states. "Whether it is toy safety, drug efficacy or air quality, we count on federal agencies to use independent and unbiased science to protect us from harm."

Federal scientists need whistleblower protection now more than ever, Grifo said. Over the last few years private groups such as UCS and news organizations have documented what appears to be a growing incidence of political interference in federal science.

For example, more than a third of the nearly 3,400 federal scientists at nine agencies who responded to UCS questionnaires since 2005 reported they fear retaliation for openly expressing concerns about their agency's work.

An example of the difficulties that government scientists can encounter is happening now at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Service is placing its scientists in an ethical bind by issuing contradictory and confusing directives, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, PEER, an organization of government workers in natural resources agencies, which signed the letter to the Senate.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Pete Pattavina holds a threatened Eastern indigo snake on the Ft. Stewart Military Base in Georgia (Photo courtesy FWS)

On one hand, the Service is encouraging its scientists to be open and honest, but, on the other hand, they are under orders not to share any agency scientific "documents, assessments and drafts" with outsiders, PEER points out.

On January 28, 2008, the Fish and Wildlife Service adopted a "Scientific Code of Professional Responsibility" which tells agency scientists to:

  • "Place reliability and objectivity of scientific activities, reporting and application of scientific results ahead of…allegiance to individuals and organizations"
  • "Distinguish between positions that are rooted in scientific information assessments and those rooted in organizational values, and make this distinction in written and oral presentations"
  • "Disseminate scientific information to the scientific community and the public to promote understanding and appreciation for fish and wildlife and their habitats."

These precepts contrast with the "guidance" issued by Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dale Hall on February 3, 2006 in which he warned scientists to avoid "premature briefings."

"It is imperative that all documents, assessments and drafts remain inside the Service, except for discussions as appropriate with recognized federal and state peers," wrote Hall.

"Rather than being clear and unambiguous, the Fish and Wildlife Service has cloaked its ethics guidelines in mixed messages and contradictory side orders," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

Ruch cited a PEER survey of Fish and Wildlife Service scientists showing what Ruch calls "widespread confusion as to what they are allowed to say or write."

"Basic principles of scientific openness and honesty should be government-wide, said Ruch, not confined to the agency that is the source of political embarrassment this quarter."

The letter's 48 signatories include: American Association of Law Libraries, American Association of University Professors, American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression, American Library Association, Association of American Publishers, Association of Reproductive Health Professionals, Californians Aware, Center for Biological Diversity, Center for Inquiry, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Common Cause, Concerned Foreign Service Officers, Conservation Northwest, Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union, Defenders of Wildlife, Doctors for Open Government, Earthjustice, Endangered Species Coalition, Essential Information, Ethics in Government Group, Federation of American Scientists, Georgians for Open Government, Government Accountability Project, Health Integrity Project, Justice Through Music, Liberty Coalition, Minnesota Coalition on Government Information, National Coalition Against Censorship, National Research Center for Women & Families, National Women's Health Network, Natural Resources Defense Council, New Jersey Work Environment Council, OMB Watch,, PEN American Center, Project on Government Oversight, Public Citizen, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, Reproductive Health Technologies Project, The Multiracial Activist, The New Grady Coalition, The Ornithological Council, The Rutherford Institute, The Student Health Integrity Project, U.S. Bill of Rights Foundation, Union of Concerned Scientists, and Western Nebraska Resources Council.

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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