Status Report

GAO: Policies Guiding the Dissemination of Scientific Research from Selected Agencies Should Be Clarified and Better Communicated

By SpaceRef Editor
June 18, 2007
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What GAO Found

Most of the NASA, NIST, and NOAA policies that guide the dissemination of federally funded research generally facilitate the dissemination process, but some do not. GAO found that overall NASA’s policies, including its recently revised media policy, are clear and should help facilitate dissemination regardless of the dissemination approach used. At NIST and NOAA, GAO found that the agencies’ policies for dissemination through publications and presentations were generally clear and should facilitate dissemination; but their policies for disseminating research through media interviews and press releases may hinder it. For example, because both NIST and NOAA are part of Commerce, researchers at these agencies must comply with department- level policies to disseminate their research results through media interviews or press releases, but Commerce’s policies are outdated and can prevent researchers from meeting media schedules. Moreover, requests by NOAA researchers to share their research via media interviews and press releases may be further hampered because these researchers must also comply with their own agency’s media interview and press release policies in addition to the Department of Commerce’s. NOAA officials told GAO that because its media interview and press release policies lack clarity, they have been inconsistently interpreted by NOAA public affairs officials.

According to GAO’s survey, NASA, NIST, and NOAA have made efforts to communicate their dissemination policies to their research staff, but many researchers are not confident that they know how to comply with some of the policies. The agencies have communicated their dissemination policies through staff meetings, on agency Web sites, and in limited formal training. While 90 percent of researchers are confident that they understand the policies for publications, only about 65 percent are confident they understand their agency’s media interview and press release policies well enough to comply with them. Similarly, almost half of the researchers across the agencies are unsure whether their agency’s policy allows them to discuss their personal views on the policy implications of their research. Finally, only 25 percent of researchers across the agencies are aware of a process to follow to appeal denials of requests to disseminate their research.

On the basis of responses to GAO’s survey, 6 percent—or about 200 researchers—across NASA, NIST, and NOAA had dissemination requests denied during the last 5 years. One of the most common reasons researchers mentioned for these denials was that the topic of the research was sensitive or restricted for security reasons; in some cases, no reason was given. Most researchers at these agencies believe that their agency is more supportive of dissemination of research through publications and presentations, than dissemination through the media. Most NIST and NOAA researchers believe that their agency consistently applies the dissemination policies for each route of dissemination, while more researchers at NASA believe the agency consistently applies its policies for publications than believe the agency consistently applies its policies for press releases and interviews.

At NASA, researchers must comply with both agencywide dissemination policies and policies established by the specific NASA centers to which they belong. We found that NASA policies are generally clear and should help facilitate the dissemination of research results. For example, NASA’s recently revised media policy clearly defines the roles and responsibilities for managers, researchers, and public affairs staff; details steps in the process for dissemination via press releases and interviews; and describes a process to resolve disputes about agency decisions regarding press releases. To supplement the policy, NASA has also developed operating procedures for the release of public information and a “Frequently Asked Questions” guide.

Despite the agencies’ efforts to communicate their dissemination policies to researchers, many researchers are not confident that they know how to comply with some of these policies or how to resolve disputes regarding agency decisions, according to our survey. NASA, NIST, and NOAA have employed a variety of formal and informal methods, including staff meetings and notifications on agency Web sites, to communicate dissemination policy to their researchers. However, most researchers learned how to comply with their agency’s policies through informal methods, such as e-mails from management and on-the-job experience, rather than through more formal means, such as training sessions. Moreover, many researchers are not confident that they understand all of the policies well enough to follow them. For example, according to our survey, while an estimated 90 percent of researchers across all three agencies believe they understand their agency’s policy for dissemination through publications well enough to comply with them, only about 65 percent of researchers believe they understand their agency’s policies for media interviews and press releases. Similarly, although NASA and NOAA leaders have told researchers that they may discuss potential policy implications of their research as long as they identify such views as their personal opinions and not those of the agency, this communication has not been effective, as fewer than one-half of the researchers at these two agencies believe they are free to discuss their views. In addition, only 25 percent of researchers across all three agencies are aware of a process or procedure they are to follow if they want to appeal denials of requests to disseminate their research.

According to OSTP, it does not conduct scientific research on its own nor does it formulate or directly oversee the development of dissemination policies or decisions at individual agencies. However, OSTP has publicly affirmed the value of science as a basis for federal action and recognizes the importance of timely, complete, and accurate communication of scientific information. The OSTP Director has on several occasions asked the leaders and chief scientists of federal agencies to develop, revise, or reemphasize their dissemination policies and to ensure that agency employees and managers understand their rights and obligations under these policies. The director has cited NASA’s media policy as a model for other agencies to consider in developing their own dissemination policies.

At NASA, researchers must comply with both agencywide policies and center-specific policies when disseminating research results, regardless of the form this dissemination takes. For example, for publications and presentations, all researchers are directed to comply with the agency’s policy for approval, publication, and dissemination of scientific and technical information. Scientific and technical information is defined as the results—including facts, analyses, and conclusions—of basic and applied scientific, technical, and related engineering research and development. This information can be disseminated through a variety of channels, including NASA publications, outside journals, presentations at meetings or workshops, and Web sites. The policy directs that all scientific and technical information released outside the agency through these means must be reviewed to determine whether public access to it should be prohibited or restricted, for national security or intellectual property reasons. In addition, NASA’s policies direct that all research results that are to be disseminated undergo professional and technical reviews to ensure that the information is being clearly communicated, is technically accurate, and meets data quality standards. These technical review and management approval procedures vary depending upon the information content, publication route, and intended audience—domestic or international. To indicate that a document has completed the necessary reviews, researchers generally must complete two forms—one identifying what restrictions, if any, need to be placed on the document prior to dissemination and the other indicating that the document has undergone technical peer review. NASA managers with whom we spoke at the centers said that they found the agency’s policies to be clear, easy to follow, and similar to procedures researchers follow in the academic community, although some said that the agency’s reviews to identify security restrictions can be cumbersome at times.

Regarding dissemination of research through media interviews and press releases, researchers at NASA are subject to the agency’s policy on the release of information to news and information media, hereafter referred to as the “media policy.” This policy, which was revised in March 2006, governs the release of information to the media, especially information with the potential to generate significant media or public interest, including press releases, media advisories, news features, and Web postings.8 According to NASA, the media policy in place prior to March 2006 had not been substantively modified since 1987 and required clarification to be both useful and practical to implement. Furthermore, the NASA public affairs policy review team, composed of representatives from throughout NASA’s scientific and public affairs offices, found that the previous policies were convoluted, bureaucratic, and resulted in a breakdown between researchers and public affairs staff.

We found that NASA’s revised 2006 media policy is generally clear and should help facilitate dissemination of research results by devolving decision making and providing a process to resolve disputes. The policy, its accompanying “Frequently Asked Questions” guide, and statements by the NASA Administrator assert NASA’s commitment to a culture of openness with the media and the public and affirm that the agency values the free exchange of ideas, data, and information as part of scientific and technical inquiry. The policy defines the roles, responsibilities, and methods of coordination for managers, researchers, and public affairs staff and lays out guidelines for working with the public affairs office, clearly stating what public affairs officials can and cannot do. Specifically, regarding media interviews, the updated policy clearly affirms that NASA employees may speak to the media and public about their work without prior approval; however, they must notify their immediate supervisor and their center public affairs office immediately thereafter. While researchers are encouraged to have a public affairs official present during interviews, it is not required and the policy clearly defines the role of public affairs staff as one of logistical support and clarification, not interference. Finally, the policy states that NASA employees may communicate conclusions on the basis of their research to the media. However, NASA employees who present personal views outside of their official area of expertise or responsibility must make clear that they are presenting their individual views and not those of the agency.

In addition to clarifying the policy for conducting media interviews, NASA’s revised media policy also describes the process for dissemination via press releases or other media items, such as news features, media advisories, or news-related Web postings. Specifically, the policy, augmented by accompanying operating procedures, clearly outlines the coordination, review, and approval process that is required prior to issuing a press release. While some public affairs officials and managers told us that some of the reviews for press releases can require more time than available to meet the deadlines of the news cycle, they also felt that the revised policy had improved the approval process. In addition, the policy specifically delegates authority to NASA centers, independent of headquarters, to issue public information that is of local interest, among other things. Items eligible for issuance by the centers include releases on specific research topics that have a targeted audience, such as the development of a new “superplastic” that would be of interest to people who use polymers, or an announcement of an upcoming lecture series to be held at the center. Delegating authority to the centers to issue their own press releases allows NASA to better publicize the work it does to targeted audiences of interest. Finally, the revised media policy describes the process for researchers to use when they disagree with the agency’s decision regarding whether to issue a press release or another type of public information. The policy allows such appeals to be elevated to the Office of the Administrator for resolution, if needed.

SpaceRef staff editor.