Freedom of Speech in Government Science

By Resnik, David B. | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 2008 | Go to article overview

Freedom of Speech in Government Science


Resnik, David B., Issues in Science and Technology


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. …

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