Federal Research:

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

GAO-07-653: Published: May 17, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 2007.

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Researchers at federal agencies disseminate their research results through a variety of approaches, including scientific publications, presentations, press releases, and media interviews. Because of recent concerns about some federal researchers possibly being restricted from disseminating their research on controversial topics, GAO determined (1) the policies that guide the dissemination of federal research at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); (2) how effectively these agencies have communicated their policies to researchers; and (3) the extent to which researchers have been restricted in disseminating their research. GAO conducted a survey of 1,811 researchers randomly selected at the three agencies, and had a 66 percent response rate.

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policies to disseminate their research results through media interviews or press releases, but Commerce's policies are outdated and can prevent researchers from meeting media schedules.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.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that the policies to guide researchers and public affairs officials in their efforts to disseminate research to the scientific community and the public are clear, transparent, consistently applied, and completely understood, the Secretary of Commerce and the NOAA Administrator should clarify their policies for disseminating research results via press releases and media interviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 14, 2007 we received a statement of actions letter from the Deputy Secretary of Commerce . The statement of actions, along with additional materials obtained from the DOC website, document the department's progress in implementing recommendations made in this report. According to the statement, the process to clarify DOC's policies for disseminating research results via press releases and media interviews began in the spring of 2006 when the department undertook a broad review of its public communications policy. This effort resulted in the development of a new department-wide policy, which was issued on March 29, 2007 and became effective for most department agencies on May 14, 2007 (Department Administrative Order 219-1, "Public Communications"). Before the new policy was issued, rules governing dissemination through press releases and media interviews were contained in multiple department orders, which we noted in our report were outdated and could potentially hinder dissemination. By updating and consolidating these policies under a single departmental order, the process for issuing press releases and granting media interviews is clarified for DOC employees. Specifically, policies in the new order that pertain to press releases and/or interviews are most prominently described in Section 7, "Fundamental Research Communication," and Section 8, "Official Communication with the Media" in the new policy. In addition to the updated communications policy, DOC has created and posted to its external website a "Frequently Asked Questions and Answers" document. These questions and answers further clarify the new policy, including issues that relate specifically to press releases and media interviews in at least 6 of the document's 20 questions.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the policies to guide researchers and public affairs officials in their efforts to disseminate research to the scientific community and the public are clear, transparent, consistently applied, and completely understood, the Secretary of Commerce and the NOAA Administrator should clarify their policies for disseminating research results via press releases and media interviews.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 14, 2007 we received a statement of actions letter signed by Deputy Secretary of Commerce on behalf of NOAA. The statement of actions, along with additional materials obtained from the NOAA website, document the agency?s progress in implementing recommendations made in this report. According to the statement, NOAA clarified its policies for disseminating research results via press releases and media interviews through 2 significant agency actions. First, NOAA's Office of Communications worked collaboratively with DOC?s Office of Public Affairs to create the March 2007 department-wide public communications policy (Department Administrative Order 219-1, 'Public Communications'). Second, NOAA's Office of Communications revised and clarified NOAA's own public communications guidance to ensure that it is consistent with the new DOC policy. According to NOAA?s statement, developing the new department-wide communications policy was 'an unprecedented effort' that involved contributions from dozens of NOAA staff through multiple rounds of review. These efforts resulted in a policy that clarified procedures related to press releases and media interviews by consolidating the rules under a single administrative order. Previously, these procedures were scattered throughout multiple policies that had not been revised since the early 1980s. In addition to the department-wide policy, NOAA also worked to clarify its own agency policies on public communications and research dissemination. For example, NOAA rescinded the administrative order that governed its media policy on the agency level before the new DOC policy took effect (NOAA Administrative Order 219-6, 'NOAA Media Policy'). In our report we cited examples of unclear language in this agency order that have led to the uneven application of policy among researchers. This policy was subsequently replaced with new agency guidance designed to be compatible with the provisions of the DOC policy ('Guidance for NOAA Employees Regarding Implementation and Interpretation of DAO 219-1'). Using the same definitions and terminology as the department-wide order, the NOAA guidance first clarifies procedures for press releases and media interviews in 2 brief overview sections: 'What's New?' and 'What's the Same?' More detailed information on these policies is then presented in subsequent sections that specifically address the submission of materials and official communication with the media.

    Recommendation: To ensure that (1) researchers have a clear process to follow for appealing decisions regarding dissemination of research results and (2) all researchers are aware of and understand how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research, the Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the NIST Director, and the NOAA Administrator should review their dissemination policies and ensure that they clearly identify a process by which researchers can appeal dissemination decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 14, 2007 we received a statement of actions letter from Deputy Secretary of Commerce. The statement of actions, along with additional materials obtained from the DOC website, document the department's progress in implementing recommendations made in this report. According to the statement, the process to clarify DOC's policies for disseminating research results via press releases and media interviews began in the spring of 2006 when the department undertook a broad review of its public communications policy. This effort resulted in the development of a new department-wide policy, which was issued on March 29, 2007 and became effective for most department agencies on May 14, 2007 (Department Administrative Order 219-1, "Public Communications"). Before the new policy was issued, rules governing dissemination through press releases and media interviews were contained in multiple department orders, which we noted in our report were outdated and could potentially hinder dissemination. By updating and consolidating these policies under a single departmental order, the process for issuing press releases and granting media interviews is clarified for DOC employees. Specifically, policies in the new order that pertain to press releases and/or interviews are most prominently described in Section 7, "Fundamental Research Communication," and Section 8, "Official Communication with the Media" in the new policy. In addition to the updated communications policy, DOC has created and posted to its external website a "Frequently Asked Questions and Answers" document. These questions and answers further clarify the new policy, including issues that relate specifically to press releases and media interviews in at least 6 of the document's 20 questions.

    Recommendation: To ensure that (1) researchers have a clear process to follow for appealing decisions regarding dissemination of research results and (2) all researchers are aware of and understand how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research, the Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the NIST Director, and the NOAA Administrator should review their dissemination policies and ensure that they clearly identify a process by which researchers can appeal dissemination decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On October 9, 2007, we received an e-mail update on NASA progress in implementing recommendations made to them in this report. According to Robert Jacobs, Deputy Assistant Administrator in the NASA Office of Public Affairs, NASA released a new agency communications policy in March 2006. This policy was in place and was favorably reviewed in our report. In Mr. Jacobs' update, he confirmed that the agency follow up on our recommendation to review that policy and confirm that it clearly defines roles for program and public affairs personnel. In addition, NASA reviewed the policy to ensure that it contains a dispute resolution process to resolve disagreements over the newsworthiness or content of public information. He further commented that this new communications policy has been incorporated into Title 14 of the CFR, Part 1213--Release of Informaiton to News and Information Media. Based on NASA's responsiveness to our recommendation, we consider the recommendation as being implemented.

    Recommendation: To ensure that (1) researchers have a clear process to follow for appealing decisions regarding dissemination of research results and (2) all researchers are aware of and understand how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research, the Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the NIST Director, and the NOAA Administrator should review their dissemination policies and ensure that they clearly identify a process by which researchers can appeal dissemination decisions.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 14, 2007, we received a statement of actions letter signed by Deputy Secretary of Commerce on behalf of NIST that documents the agency's progress in implementing recommendations made in this report. Based on the statement, NIST has adopted the dissemination policies of the March 2007 DOC department-wide public communications policy, including provisions that relate to appeals processes (Department Administrative Order 219-1, "Public Communications"). As such, the Commerce policies applicable to NIST staff delineate the process for appealing dissemination decisions. Specific information about the new appeals process has been provided to agency staff as part of the general training associated with implementing the new department-wide policy.

    Recommendation: To ensure that (1) researchers have a clear process to follow for appealing decisions regarding dissemination of research results and (2) all researchers are aware of and understand how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research, the Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the NIST Director, and the NOAA Administrator should review their dissemination policies and ensure that they clearly identify a process by which researchers can appeal dissemination decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 14, 2007 we received a statement of actions letter signed by Deputy Secretary of Commerce on behalf of NOAA. The statement of actions, along with additional materials obtained from the NOAA website, document the agency's progress in implementing recommendations made in this report. In our review GAO, determined that not all researchers were aware of and how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research. In our May 2007 report, we recommended that NOAA review their dissemination policies and ensure that they clearly identify a process by which researchers can appeal dissemination decisions. As a result of our recommendations, NOAA revised its public communications guidance in July 2007, which now clearly describes the process by which researchers can appeal dissemination decisions and states that appeals should be responded to in writing within two business days.

    Recommendation: To ensure that (1) researchers have a clear process to follow for appealing decisions regarding dissemination of research results and (2) all researchers are aware of and understand how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research, the Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the NIST Director, and the NOAA Administrator should provide formal training to inform, reinforce, and update managers, researchers, and public affairs staff on these policies.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 14, 2007 we received a statement of actions letter from Deputy Secretary of Commerce. The statement of actions, along with additional materials obtained from the DOC website, document the department's progress in implementing recommendations made in this report. According to the statement, the process to clarify DOC's policies for disseminating research results via press releases and media interviews began in the spring of 2006 when the department undertook a broad review of its public communications policy. This effort resulted in the development of a new department-wide policy, which was issued on March 29, 2007 and became effective for most department agencies on May 14, 2007 (Department Administrative Order 219-1, "Public Communications"). Before the new policy was issued, rules governing dissemination through press releases and media interviews were contained in multiple department orders, which we noted in our report were outdated and could potentially hinder dissemination. By updating and consolidating these policies under a single departmental order, the process for issuing press releases and granting media interviews is clarified for DOC employees and component agencies. Specifically, policies in the new order that pertain to press releases and/or interviews are most prominently described in Section 7, "Fundamental Research Communication," and Section 8, "Official Communication with the Media" in the new policy. In addition to the updated communications policy, DOC has created and posted to its external website a "Frequently Asked Questions and Answers" document. These questions and answers further clarify the new policy, including issues that relate specifically to press releases and media interviews in at least 6 of the document's 20 questions.

    Recommendation: To ensure that (1) researchers have a clear process to follow for appealing decisions regarding dissemination of research results and (2) all researchers are aware of and understand how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research, the Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the NIST Director, and the NOAA Administrator should provide formal training to inform, reinforce, and update managers, researchers, and public affairs staff on these policies.

    Agency Affected: National Aeronautics and Space Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 14, 2007 we received a statement of actions letter signed by Deputy Secretary of Commerce on behalf of NOAA. The statement of actions, along with additional materials obtained from the NOAA website, document the agency's progress in implementing recommendations made in this report. In our review GAO determined that not all researchers were aware of and understood how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research. In our May 2007 report, we recommended that NOAA provide formal training to inform, reinforce, and update staff on these policies. Consistent with this recommendation, NOAA's Office of Communications has provided training and prepared briefings to inform and update managers, public affairs specialists and other employees on how to comply with the policies for disseminating research results and handing media interviews. For example, in July 2007, NOAA's Office of Communications briefed groups of senior managers and researchers on the communications policy. In addition, the NOAA public affairs specialists provided training on the policy to NOAA scientists at headquarters and selected field sites.

    Recommendation: To ensure that (1) researchers have a clear process to follow for appealing decisions regarding dissemination of research results and (2) all researchers are aware of and understand how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research, the Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the NIST Director, and the NOAA Administrator should provide formal training to inform, reinforce, and update managers, researchers, and public affairs staff on these policies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Institute of Standards and Technology

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 14, 2007 we received a statement of actions letter signed by Deputy Secretary of Commerce on behalf of NIST that documents the agency's progress in implementing recommendations made in this report. According to the statement, NIST has undertaken several actions to provide formal training to staff on the agency?s dissemination policies, which now include new department-wide policies established by DOC in March 2007 (Department Administrative Order 219-1, "Public Communications"). Specifically, in May 2007, NIST held an agency-wide meeting, hosted by the agency director, to explain the new DOC/NIST dissemination policy. Prior to this session, an all-staff e-mail was sent to staff to notify them of the new DOC policy, invite them to the information session, and to provide them with a link to the full text of the policy and a frequently asked questions document on the DOC external Website. Another training session was held in August 2007 at NIST's Boulder, Colorado site. Additionally, NIST's internal Website now includes information about the new DOC/NIST policy, including video from the May 2007 training session. The internal site also contains a question and answer-format Web page on dissemination policies and the NIST Administrative Manual, which according to the statement, is being updated to reflect the new policy. Furthermore, the new policies and procedures have been described in an article in the NIST internal employee newsletter. Finally, NIST's orientation, mandatory for all new employees, includes discussion of the DOC/NIST communications policy.

    Recommendation: To ensure that (1) researchers have a clear process to follow for appealing decisions regarding dissemination of research results and (2) all researchers are aware of and understand how to comply with their agencies' policies for disseminating research, the Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the NIST Director, and the NOAA Administrator should provide formal training to inform, reinforce, and update managers, researchers, and public affairs staff on these policies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Commerce: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On October 9, 2007, we received an e-mail update on NASA progress in implementing recommendations made to them in this report. According to the Deputy Assistant Administrator in the NASA Office of Public Affairs, NASA released a new agency communications policy in March 2006. This policy was in place and was favorably reviewed in our report. In Mr. Jacobs' update, he shared a variety of formal training activities undertaken by the agency with regard to this communications policy. These activities included: --On June 26, 2007, a training session for NASA's communications team was held as part of a formal Communications Coordinating Committee seminar at Kennedy Space Center. A second session was held at Stennis Space Center on October 11, 2007. Representatives from across the agency attended these sessions, which were led by the Chief of Strategic Communication. --On July 11, 2007, senior managers were briefed on the media policy --NASA has regularly distributed via e-mail and through public postings on agency bulletin boards, notifications and reminders about the policies and where to see reference materials on them. In addition, they have also updated links on the NASA external and internal Websites. --In December 2007, NASA distributed two posters (copies supplied to us) to all 10 NASA field centers and headquarters. The Deputy Assistant Administrator augmented poster distribution with a discussion as part of the monthly Strategic Communications video conference that included representatives at all NASA center; a similar discussion took place two days later with the heads of all center newsrooms. --Discussion of the communications policy has been institutionalized as part of the orientation of new public affairs officers. --Beginning in June 2007, the Chief of Strategic Communications toured all of the NASA centers and conducted presentations regarding the new policy; emphasis was placed on making sure the agency's science centers were fully aware of the policy. As part of these meetings, he presented an overview of the policy, answered questions from employees during an all hands meeting, and distributed copies of the policies to each public affairs officer and also to senior management. --NASA is currently working on a training module that will be incorporated into a Satern online training module and plans call for all employees to review the module annually. Based on the actions described above, we consider the intent of the recommendation as being addressed.

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