Federal Scientists Are Feeling More Empowered Under Biden, Though Censorship Remains a Concern
Employees "painted harrowing pictures" of their time under Trump, but in a new survey said things are mostly getting better.
The mood has improved and political interference has diminished within the federal government’s career scientist ranks, according to a new survey, though some lingering fears and reservations have remained.
Federal employees working in scientific jobs overall reported improving job satisfaction and more freedom to conduct their work without improper pressure from political appointees, the Union of Concerned Scientists found. The results buoyed President Biden’s claims that when he came into office he would protect science and eliminate the atmosphere that civil servants, watchdogs and outside groups had flagged throughout the Trump administration as having allowed undue influence on data and research conducted at agencies. Still, some federal scientific agencies surveyed—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Agriculture Department—suggested political and business considerations continue to weigh on their work.
Overwhelmingly, respondents said morale, working conditions and job effectiveness have all improved over the last two years. In fact, they reported the highest results since the Union of Concerned Scientists began conducting its survey during the George W. Bush administration. More than half of EPA respondents, for example, said the effectiveness of their office increased over the last two years, compared to just 5% who said the same in the group’s 2018 survey.
Whereas a plurality of scientists said in 2018 resources were being diverted away from offices viewed as “doing politically contentious work,” a majority in the more recent iteration said that is no longer occurring in the current administration.
Still, censorship remains a prevalent issue. About 26% of scientists said they were instructed to “omit certain words” in their scientific work products because they were “politically contentious,” which is up from the 23% who said the same in 2018. Sixteen percent of scientists said they were told to avoid working on some science-based topics altogether due to their potential for political controversy, nearly in line with the 2018 results. One-in-five reported fearing repercussions if they engaged in advocacy or self-expression.
Despite those concerns, UCS reported an overall significant change from the Trump era. In its 2018 survey, the group found political interference was “widespread and constant.” Its 2018 survey found many federal employees in scientific jobs were feeling stymied by censorship and interference from political appointees, with half of scientists surveyed saying that political considerations were hindering agencies’ ability to make science-based decisions.
“Many scientists feared speaking up when they witnessed scientific integrity violations, felt the need to censor themselves from expressing science-based terms such as climate change, and reported that their work environments were not conducive to fulfilling agencies’ science-based missions,” the Union of Concerned Scientists wrote. Asked to reflect on the Trump years, many respondents “painted harrowing pictures of an administration openly hostile to science, and many feared that a future administration would do the same.”
Employees at agencies like NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration previously told Government Executive they faced unprecedented interference from political leadership under President Trump, including rollbacks of their past work and tampering with research. Scientists reported being left out of key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale. The issue was brought to the forefront during the COVID-19 pandemic after repeated reports of political appointees altering or improperly influencing scientific and medical findings. High-profile officials such as former National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases Director Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx, the Trump administration's coronavirus response coordinator, have said that their scientific work was frequently disrupted by Trump and his aides.
While the clash between career scientists and political appointees was particularly acute under Trump, the group noted every administration has had its run-ins. For decades, administrations have been suppressing or editing scientific studies, reducing access to data, issues regulations that omit science, politicizing funding decisions, muzzling scientific experts or sidelining scientific advisory committees.
Biden’s primary avenue to reversing the trend of the Trump administration appears to be paying some dividends, however. The president launched his review of the government’s protections for scientists shortly after taking office, creating a task force made up of several dozen scientists from across government. Eight in 10 federal scientists said their agency had adhered to its scientific integrity policy and 73% said they were adequately trained on its contents. While Biden has required a scientific integrity officer at every agency and his panel has released a framework to guide agency policies, some groups have voiced concern the guidance lacks any teeth to actually protect scientists from retaliation.
More than one-in-three scientists said “political interests” hindered the agency from making science-based decisions, though that dropped from half of respondents in 2018. Thirty percent said business interests were impacting science, down from 42% in 2018. The Union of Concerned Scientists noted those improvements are being felt across government.
“The survey results indicate that agencies are better protecting scientific staff from undue political interference and ensuring that decision making processes incorporate science,” the group said. “This likely improves how scientists perceive and feel about their workplace environments.”
Federal agencies are still battling workforce losses suffered during the Trump administration. More than 60% of respondents reported feeling burned out and 70% of those scientists said it was due to insufficient staffing at their agency.
The survey found that scientists generally felt the Biden administration was successfully looking to include diverse perspectives in agency research and follow through on its promise to better deliver government services to underserved communities. Still, the group said there were sufficient examples to prove that “significant gaps continue to hinder the meaningful incorporation” of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion principles into federal scientific work.
The Union of Concerned Scientists surveyed 46,616 federal scientists and received responses from 1,828 individuals between Sept. 14, 2022 and Oct. 28, 2022.