Freedom of Speech

By Sieber, Joan E. | Issues in Science and Technology, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Speech


Sieber, Joan E., Issues in Science and Technology


In "Freedom of Speech in Government Science" (Issues, Winter 2008), David B. Resnik raises troubling issues about the politicization of government science and threats to the freedom of speech of government scientists. The issue is complicated because government scientists necessarily work under conditions different from those of academic scientists. Unlike academia, where any scientist can manage to be heard (and perhaps be ignored), government scientists are perceived as speaking for their agency, and for legitimate reasons their public statements are subject to internal peer review. For example, a government scientist might be stopped from disseminating work that was judged to reflect poorly on the government and possibly damage public trust in government science. However, scientific peer review is subject to the perspectives of each reviewer. Although science is productive when there is free debate about perspectives, it is also harmed when opposing perspectives of reviewers result in limited communication of scientific ideas and results. Just as biased institutional review boards and editors can limit the expression of scientists' ideas, so too can government peer review boards err when they decide what is appropriate discussion of scientific controversy and what is not. Or worse, such boards may succumb to political pressures to bias their decisions under the guise of honest disagreement.

Resnick suggests that an oversight committee outside of government might review government peer review procedures for fairness, and also investigate cases of alleged bias and report their findings to Congress. Some cases of political bias in the evaluation of a scientist's proposed public statements are probably so egregious that they would be clearly recognizable as such by a committee of competent scientists whose expertise is in the field in which the case occurs.

But who would identify such important cases and bring them before a committee? Anyone who has been in government science (or any science anywhere) has heard legendary accounts about scientists whose careers continually suffer because of the abuses of power by others in their work organization. …

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