Let Government Scientists Tweet More, Report Says

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Federal agencies are improving social media policies but have a ways to go.

Many federal agencies are still failing to give government scientists adequate freedom to communicate their research and findings with the public, according to a new report by a scientific advocacy group.

A report released Friday by The Center for Science and Democracy gave many federal agencies mixed grades for their media and social media policies.

Out of 17 science-oriented agencies reviewed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration topped out CSD’s 2013 overall report card, with an A grade for media policy and a B for use of social media. Bottoming out the list was the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which received ‘D’ grades in both categories. Several others received “incompletes” because researchers could not obtain the agency’s media policies in time.   

CSD, a division of the Union for Concerned Scientists, said that the Obama administration had made marked improvement in giving scientists the freedom and ability to speak with the public. The group commissioned a similar report in 2008, and said that agencies had definitely improved since then. However, they said, some attempts to “silence scientists” indicated that problems still exist.

Gretchen Goldman, an analyst with CSD, emphasized that scientists don’t give up their First Amendment freedoms when they decide to work for the government. They need to have the ability to communicate their views with the public, she said.

“The public deserves access to the science they’re funding, especially when it comes to research about our health and safety,” Goldman said in a statement.

In a corresponding document released with the report, CSD said an ideal media policy should include an accessible and flexible public affairs office, protection of scientific free speech, and promotion of openness and transparency.

The U.S. Geological Survey had already responded to the report with updates to its own media policy by Friday afternoon. 

The report gave NASA a B and a B+ for its media and social media policies, respectively. NASA has been commended by outside observers for its extensive use of social media, including a recent extraterrestrial Google+ hangout

The National Institutes of Health was the only agency to receive an A for its social media policy. The CSD said that NIH’s coherent New Media Checklist helped employees understand what they could and couldn’t do with social media. Still, Goldman cited NASA’s prodigious Twitter following when showing the potential that social media had for the government.

“Agencies shouldn’t be afraid to let scientists experiment with social media,” Goldman said. “When NASA has as many Twitter followers as Anderson Cooper, it’s clear that social media has huge potential for science communication.”

(Image via violetkaipa/Shutterstock.com)

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