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Report Ranks Federal Agencies On How Much They Allow Scientists to Share Online

BY Miranda Neubauer | Friday, March 15 2013

NASA may get a lot of attention for its use of social media to engage with the public, but according to one group, the National Institutes of Health takes the cake on Twitter.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has issued grades for the social media policies of federal agencies, with a focus on how the policies protect the ability of government scientists to communicate freely.

This group's grading of social media policies is a complement to its evaluation of agencies' media policies, which it first examined in 2008. UCS officials are doing this, they say in their report, because scientists in the federal government have plenty to share with the public but little information about how much they're allowed to share without getting in trouble.

Twitter and Facebook might seem frivolous, but any outlet for talking about government research can be serious business. The White House recently responded to broad public concern about open access to federally funded research through an online petition. And prior to that, the Food and Drug Administration was revealed to have been monitoring its employees electronic communications — including communications with outsiders — in an effort to track critics of its review process.

In a blog post, the UCS' Michael Halpern writes that while academic scientists and scientists such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History with over one million Twitter followers, are able to act as scientific ambassadors and attract attention to their home institutions, "it’s considerably more difficult to find government scientists who list their agency affiliations and tweet freely."

"Hearing directly from scientists can break down barriers between government agencies and the public," he writes. "It makes subverting the science for political purposes that much harder by decentralizing communications and giving the public a better idea of the science being considered in policy decisions. Strong policies are the first line of defense against political interference in federal science."

The report cites unnamed scientists from within government to make that point.

"It seems impossible to simultaneously describe my place of employment on a social media site and abide by my employer’s requirements for speaking only as an individual," an anonymous scientist at the Department of Energy, which received a C grade, told the UCS.

“We have been encouraged to use social media—judiciously—to get our science message out. . . . [W]e have found social media to be extremely useful to communicate to our diverse audience," the UCS quoted an anonymous scientist from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The UCS recommends that all federal agencies develop a social media policy that includes a distinction between personal and official use of social media tools, as well as a personal-views exception "which allows scientists to identify their job title and employer if they make clear that they are not speaking for the agency in an official capacity."

Under the UCS' criteria, the National Institutes of Health was the only one of 15 federal and regulatory science agencies to receive an A for its social media policy.

NASA was one of the runners-up, along with the Bureau of Land Management, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The five agencies that received an "incomplete" grade from the UCS were the Centers for Disease Control, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the National Science Foundation and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. In all those cases, the UCS said that it had difficulty locating the social media policy publicly or obtaining it through a Freedom of Information Act request.

In interviews, representatives for some of the agencies UCS dinged in its report said they'd re-evaluate aspects of their policies.

Holly Harrington, senior level adviser for public affairs at the NRC, suggested that the agency got an "incomplete" grade because of an "interim" label on its existing policy.

"The guidance that is listed as interim is very thorough and that is what we are living by," she said.

She added that the "interim" title might be revisited now.

In addition to featuring scientists and staff on YouTube, she said, the agency — employing federal regulators responsible for overseeing civilian-held nuclear material and commercial nuclear reactors — has a Twitter account where "anyone can ask for a tweet."

She also said that any member of the agency can have a personal Twitter account. If you're curious what regulators are thinking about when they're not keeping tabs on the Homer Simpsons of the world.

The agency also plans to unveil a chat feature in the spring to organize live chats with agency experts.

"We're still looking at Facebook," she added. "We currently don't have access to Facebook on our desktops due to cybersecurity concerns."

In the report, UCS says NASA doesn't have an official social media policy — so they based the grade on guidelines posted to the agency's intranet. The agency's social media policy should be made public, the UCS says in its report.

Jason Townsend, deputy social media manager for NASA, noted that the agency currently has 480 social media accounts on 10 platforms. He added that the agency had worked closely with staff and scientists in drafting its guidelines, which are accessible to all staff on an internal website, and posting an additional policy would be "redundant."

The quirks of this or that law or regulation have been a longstanding problem for federal agencies using social media, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission is no exception, said its communications director, Scott Wolfson. In fact, federal law holds the threat of a lawsuit over anyone at the commission who makes a certain kind of Twitter slip-up.

Section 6 (b) of the Consumer Products Safety Act, he said, restricts "the entire staff from communicating anything about a company name or product if it hasn't been subject to a previously announced recall," violation of which can make staff subject to a lawsuit.

The commission "has a social media policy in the works," Wolfson said.

He noted that the agency has a very active social media presence that highlights staff and scientist work on Twitter, Flickr and YouTube.

"It's about finding the right balance between the legal restrictions and the belief within the whole agency in open government and transparency," he added at another point in our phone conversation.

In an e-mail, Dana Topousis, acting division director for public affairs at the NSF, wrote that the agency was reviewing USC's comments and the "incomplete" rating. They'll also "take steps to clarify" their policy, Topousis wrote.

The CDC and the FDA did not respond to a request for comment by press time. The CDC and the NSF were the agencies that received an A for their media policy, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But the U.S. Geological Survey did one better: hours after the report was posted, the agency revised its policy language to include a provision for correcting "scientific inaccuracy."