Perspectives: Freedom of Speech in Government Science

Perspectives: Freedom of Speech in Government Science

DAVID B. RESNIK

Freedom of Speech in Government Science

Since the early 1990s, researchers, scholars, journalists, and professional organizations have published hundreds of articles, books, and reports on the ethical problems related to industry-funded science, addressing such concerns as conflicts of interest, suppression of data and results, ghost authorship, and abuse of intellectual property laws. Although the investigative spotlight has focused on privatized science in the past 15 years, government science has received relatively little attention until recently. Three important publications—the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report Scientific Integrity in Policy Making, Chris Mooney’s book The Republican War on Science, and Seth Shulman’s book Undermining Science— have highlighted some of the ethical problems, such as limitations on free speech, politicization of scientific advisory panels, conflicts of interest, and bias, that can occur in government science.

According to Mooney, President George W. Bush’s administration has attempted to prevent government scientists from expressing their views about global climate change. James E. Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), said that public affairs staff members were reviewing his upcoming lectures, papers, media interviews, and Web postings. Hansen accused NASA administrators of trying to censor information that he planned to share with the public. NASA officials denied this accusation, claiming that Hansen’s public statements were not given special scrutiny and that all NASA scientists must have their media interviews reviewed by public affairs staff members to ensure coordination with the administration’s policy statements. Hansen countered that the administration was trying to intimidate him and that it had taken similar actions to prevent other researchers from communicating with the public about global warming.

Other scientists working for the federal government have also encountered problems with freedom of speech under the Bush administration. Former Surgeon General Richard Carmona told congressional investigators that federal officials weakened or suppressed public health reports to support a political agenda. He also said that the administration would not allow him to speak to the public about a number of different health policy issues, including stem cell research, emergency contraception, sex education, and global health. Administration officials have also rewritten Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports on global warming for political purposes.

Hansen’s confrontation with Bush administration officials raises important questions about the ethics of government science. Should scientists who work for the government have as much freedom of speech as academic scientists? What restrictions on speech, if any, can be applied to government science? I argue that government scientists should have freedom of speech but that the government may impose some restrictions on speech to ensure that research meets standards of quality and integrity and that policy messages conveyed to the public are consistent. However, any restrictions on speech must be applied carefully and cautiously to avoid undermining government science.

A philosophy of freedom

Freedom of speech is one of science’s most important norms. Nineteenth-century philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill developed an influential account of the importance of freedom of speech in public debate. According to Mill, social and scientific progress occurs through vigorous debate involving opposing points of view. To generate different points of view, people must have freedom of thought and speech. Progress cannot occur if the majority uses its power to suppress minority viewpoints. Many other scholars, such as Karl Popper, Paul Feyerabend, and Philip Kitcher, have built on Mill’s work to develop arguments for freedom of speech specifically for scientific inquiry.

Before discussing restrictions on freedom of speech in science, it will useful to distinguish between different types of limitations that the government might impose. Restrictions on funding are morally, legally, and politically different from restrictions on publication, which includes public discussion and dissemination. Restrictions on funding are unavoidable in societies where there is not enough money to fund every worthwhile project. Government agencies use peer review committees to decide which research proposals should be funded. Scientists who are denied funding by a federal agency are still free to conduct their research using funds from a different source, such as a private company, university, or foundation. Restrictions on publication pose a more serious threat to freedom of speech. Denying a person the right to present ideas in a public forum constitutes a significant interference with free speech, because publication is vital to science. Scientists require freedom of speech not just to discuss matters privately but also to share ideas with their peers and the public at large. Because restrictions on publication can have a much more substantial impact on research than restrictions on funding, this essay will focus on restrictions on publication.

TO ENSURE THAT POLICIES THAT RESTRICT SPEECH ARE IMPLEMENTED FAIRLY, IT MAY THEREFORE BE NECESSARY FOR AN ORGANIZATION THAT IS INDEPENDENT OF THE GOVERNMENT TO MONITOR AND REVIEW THE ACTIVITIES RELATED TO THE CONTROL OF SPEECH BY GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES.

There are two basic models of freedom of speech in research: the academic model and the corporate/military model. In the United States, scientists working for academic institutions have unsurpassed freedom of speech. In most colleges and universities, scientists may publish articles or papers, express political opinions, discuss controversial ideas in classes, or talk to the media with very little administrative oversight or control. As long as they avoid slander, treason, fraud, sexual harassment, or other illegal forms of speech, scientists working in academic institutions are free to say or write almost anything. Organizations that represent university professors, such as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), have vigorously defended academic freedom. The AAUP helps professors who have some difficulties exercising their academic freedom, investigates institutions accused of interfering with academic freedom, and censures institutions that it determines have violated academic freedom.

Not all researchers have as much freedom as those who work in academic institutions. Scientists who work for private industry must deal with restrictions on communication. Companies treat all aspects of R&D as confidential business information, which is protected by trade secrecy laws. They usually also require employees and contractors to sign agreements giving the company the right to own intellectual property and control publication of research results. Scientists who perform classified research for the government are not allowed to share their work with the public. U.S. government agencies have the authority to classify information that poses a significant threat to national security. Access to classified information is granted only to people with an appropriate security clearance on a “need-to-know” basis. People who publicly disseminate classified research without permission can face substantial legal penalties.

Government science

Which of these two models should apply to nonclassified government science? To answer this question, it will be useful to examine the role of government science in society. Government scientists, like other state employees, should serve the public interest and should not betray the public’s trust. The Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government proclaim 14 different ethical duties of federal government employees, including not using public office for private gain, adhering to the laws and regulations of the United States, avoiding conflicts of interest that undermine the performance of government duties, and not giving preferential treatment to organizations or individuals.

There are several specific ways in which scientists serve the public interest. First, government scientists conduct valuable research, often in fields or disciplines that receive very little funding from industry, such as public health, environmental health, and basic research in the physical or biological sciences. Government science contributes to the fundamental understanding of many different disciplines and often yields practical applications in medicine, agriculture, engineering, information technology, aeronautics, and other applied fields. Additionally, government science helps to inform regulatory decisions, legislative proposals, and policy recommendations. Second, government scientists provide expert advice to Congress, federal and state agencies, and the public. The advice given by government scientists is usually more objective and reliable than the advice given by scientists employed by industry or political interest groups, because government scientists are not officially aligned with any particular private interest or political ideology. For example, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) receives a great deal of information and advice from pharmaceutical companies, professional societies, and patient advocacy groups concerning decisions to approve new drugs. To make fair and impartial decisions, the FDA also needs information from scientists who are not influenced by these economic and political biases. Third, government scientists educate the public about scientific issues with policy implications, such as pollution, infectious diseases, drug abuse, crime prevention, and drug safety. Government scientists educate the public through lectures, informational Web sites, popular books, or interactions with the media. In addition, government scientists help to educate the next generation of scientists by instructing, mentoring, and supervising graduate students and postdoctoral students.

To perform these different functions effectively, government scientists must be able to communicate with other researchers and the public free from fear of censorship, intimidation, or reprisal. There are several arguments for freedom of speech in government science. First, as stated earlier, freedom of speech is essential for conducting research. Placing restrictions on communication significantly alters scientific work and can have a negative impact on the research environment. Even if the government restricts the speech of only well-known scientists, such as James Hansen, these actions can have a chilling effect that alters the behavior of less well-known scientists. Scientists who are aware of the potential consequences of publishing or discussing ideas that contradict administration policies may engage in various forms of self-censorship, such as softening and qualifying the conclusions and recommendations in their publications or forgoing some types of research altogether.

Second, freedom of speech is important for providing expert advice. Restrictions on speech can undermine the formulation and implementation of well-reasoned independent expert opinions about controversial public policy issues. A lack of expertise in government decisionmaking can have adverse consequences for public policy, human health, the economy, and the environment. For example, if the FDA acts on biased or incompetent advice about a drug, it may fail to adequately protect the public from the drug’s harmful effects.

Third, freedom of speech is important for educating and informing the public about scientific issues with policy implications. To develop well-informed and cogent opinions about policy issues, people need to hear different perspectives, not just the perspective favored by the current administration. Restrictions on freedom of speech can limit the perspectives available to the public.

Fourth, granting government scientists freedom of speech helps agencies to recruit and retain highly talented researchers, who may decide to not work for the government if they are concerned about limitations on freedom of expression. Fifth, U.S. government scientists, like other U.S. citizens, have constitutionally protected rights to free speech. They should not have to choose between exercising these rights and working for the government. Although people agree to limit their rights to free speech when working for private companies, they should not have to do so when working for the government. Government work should be compatible with free speech, not detrimental to it.

Justified restrictions

Although these five arguments build a strong case for granting government scientists unfettered freedom of speech, there are reasons for placing some minimal restrictions on government scientists’ communications for specific, clearly defined purposes. First, government scientists often have access to confidential information concerning privately funded research, personnel matters, or research involving human subjects. Government scientists should not have a right to disclose confidentiality information without permission. For example, if a government agency and a private company enter into a cooperative research and development agreement (CRADA) for the purpose of developing and testing a medical product, government scientists working under the auspices of this CRADA should not disclose confidential information about the company’s products.

Second, because government scientists usually list their institutional affiliations when publishing articles or making presentations, the government’s reputation can be affected. If a government scientist publishes an article with substantial errors of fact, reasoning, or methodology, this will reflect poorly on the government and damage the public’s trust in government science. Thus, some type of quality control, such as internal peer review, is appropriate for government publications or presentations.

Third, when a government scientist communicates with the media, the public (or even journalists) may mistakenly assume that the scientist is speaking for the government, when he or she is expressing only a personal opinion. If the scientist expresses an opinion that goes against official policy, this can creates confusion in the public mind. To minimize confusion and to enable an administration to convey consist policy messages, it is appropriate to allow public relations offices to review a government scientist’s communications with the media. The purpose of such review should not be to stop the scientist from talking to the media but to allow the administration to prepare a response to the scientist’s interview.

These are all good rationales for restricting the speech of government scientists in some situations, but they must be applied carefully and cautiously to avoid the negative consequences of restrictions on speech discussed earlier. For example, internal peer review should not be used to block or hinder manuscripts for nonscientific reasons. Administrators who oversee internal review should protect the process from ideological, political, or other influences external to scientific peer review. Media review should not be used to suppress opinions that diverge from the administration’s positions but only to clarify what is government policy and what is personal opinion.

Most government agencies have policies similar to these in place as well as employee grievance mechanisms such as ombudsmen and Equal Employment Opportunity officials. Problems have arisen, however, because these policies have not always been implemented judiciously by federal agencies. Hansen, for example, alleged that NASA officials had used the media review policies to intimidate him and discourage him from talking to the media, even as a private citizen. Abuses like these have occurred as a result of pressure from the administration on agency officials to control the speech of government scientists.

To ensure that policies that restrict speech are implemented fairly, it may therefore be necessary for an organization that is independent of the government to monitor and review the activities related to the control of speech by government employees. The organization should scrutinize internal review and media relations policies to ensure that they are not too restrictive or burdensome. The organization should also address complaints by government scientists concerning freedom of speech and defend employees who face censorship, intimidation, or reprisal related to their public communications. The organization would play a role similar to the one played by the AAUP in protecting freedom of speech in academic institutions.

What type of organization could fulfill this watchdog role? Congress could pass legislation creating an office to monitor restrictions on government free speech, but there would be political opposition to this legislation from interest groups that prefer the status quo. Also, a government office might not be sufficiently independent from the administration, especially if it is located within the executive branch. Probably the best way to safeguard free speech in government science would be for a scientific organization, such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), to designate a committee or group to focus on these issues. A standing committee of the AAAS, the Committee on Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (CSFR), would be a natural fit for this role. The CSFR is charged with monitoring the actions and policies of governments and private organizations that restrict scientific freedom, collecting information concerning restrictions on freedom, and developing policies that protect scientists from impingements on their freedom. Its effectiveness would be significantly enhanced is it were authorized by Congress to continue its work and report the results to government officials.


David B. Resnik () is a bioethicist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.