The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has adopted a relatively open policy on scientists speaking to journalists, in sharp contrast to a number of other federal agencies.
In a questions-and-answers document on its new scientific integrity policy NOAA lists the question, “May I take phone calls from the media and give interviews?”The agency’s answer is, “Yes. There are no exceptions here.”
The document also says scientists are not required to do anything when asked by a reporter to give an interview, indicating that notification of the public relations office is not mandated.
It further says scientists are allowed to give their personal opinions in interviews, as long as they make clear they are not expressing the opinion of NOAA or the administration.
According to the actual NOAA scientific integrity policy statement, the policy covers all employees who deal with, or manage or communicate about science or use it for policy decisions, as well as contractors who do those things.
The policy is starkly different from that of the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, which states, “When approached by a reporter, HHS employees should work with their immediate supervisor and coordinate with the appropriate public affairs office/personnel in their agency.”
In addition to prohibiting journalists and staff members from speaking to each other without reporting to authorities, the HHS policy in practice limits information-gathering in a number of ways. The permission-seeking requirement for each contact inevitably slows the process. Public relations staff members monitor conversations by listening in on them. Many conversations never happen because they are excessively delayed or the agency prevents the contact in one way or another, sometimes blatantly denying contact between reporter and expert.
A number of other federal agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, have similar practices, according to reporters who cover them.
In an interview on NOAA’s scientific integrity statement, Justin Kenney, the agency’s director of communications and external affairs, said his philosophy is, “more is better,” and that NOAA should take every opportunity to talk about its science to reporters.
He added that the taxpayers pay for the work and the agency wants people to know about it.
Kenney confirmed that employees are not required to tell the public affairs office about conversations.
He said there has been no “push back” from other federal agencies about the level of openness of NOAA’s policy.
He did say there might be instances, such as when there is pending litigation, when NOAA would not want to comment.
According to the Scientific American “Observations” blog, NOAA’s administrator Jane Lubchenco said at a press conference in December that the policy “firmly supports our scientists and their scientific activities, protects the use of scientific findings and thus advances the public trust in NOAA science.”
It should be noted there is ample language in the NOAA Q-and-A document for supervisors who are so inclined to pressure staff to report conversations. The document says staff members not required to give interviews and they can always refer a call to public affairs. It also says that although staff members are not required to report conversations, “However, good practice suggests you should notify your public affairs officer and/or the head of your operating unit prior to or just after you give an interview.”
That’s because, the document says, managers, like other people, would not want to be surprised about detailed questions about their work.
Nevertheless, the NOAA policy allows the possibility of staff members and journalists speaking to each other fluidly, without reporting to the authorities, and confidentially if necessary.