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More than one-quarter of the 4211 federal scientists who responded to a recent survey worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which also employed this biologist working in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

NOAA Ocean Service

Survey of U.S. government scientists finds range of attitudes toward Trump policies

It’s widely assumed that many U.S. government scientists disagree with President Donald Trump on several of his controversial science appointments, his proposed deep cuts to research, and a spate of executive actions aimed at overturning current government policies to combat climate change. Some have publicly voiced their concerns. But what do the rank-and-file really think of working for this president?

The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a Cambridge, Massachusetts–based advocacy organization that views Trump’s track record on science as “abysmal,” tried to find out. But its survey, released today, suggests their views are hard to pigeonhole and fall short of documenting widespread unhappiness with the Trump administration.

The 58-question survey went to 61,289 federal workers at 16 agencies and departments, and 4211 responded. Their answers contain plenty of ammunition for those already inclined to wring their hands over how science is faring under Trump. One-third of the nearly 449 respondents who work at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for example, complained about the “influence” of political appointees or White House officials in “science-based” decisions. Two in five of the respondents from the Department of the Interior’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Park Service (NPS) said senior administrators with financial interests in the outcome are “inappropriately” affecting policymaking at those agencies.

At the same time, the report notes that scientists at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientists “perceive significantly less political pressure.” And it says most scientists who responded believe their agencies are playing by rules designed to protect the independence of researchers. “At all agencies, scientists are aware of—and feel that agencies generally adhere to—their policies regarding scientific integrity.”

Methodological caveats

The survey comes with major caveats. Despite its title—“Science under Trump”—UCS officials concede that the survey is not representative of attitudes across the federal government. Those polled were not selected at random, and UCS lacks demographic information on both those who answered and those who did not reply.

The survey also suffers from a low response rate. The overall total is 6.9%, a figure that dips to as low as 2% for the U.S. Census Bureau. At EPA, the survey went to all 15,000 employees—nearly one-fourth of all recipients—but only 3% completed it. By comparison, NOAA scientists are most likely overrepresented. The survey went to nearly 12,000 of them, and 10% filled it out, meaning its 1158 respondents constitute more than a quarter of the total.

UCS also deliberately skewed the survey toward agencies with spotty track records for scientific integrity and the treatment of whistleblowers. Accordingly, it did not poll scientists at the four federal agencies with the largest basic research budgets: the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the Office of Science at the Department of Energy (DOE).

“We wanted to focus on the regulatory agencies, and those with a history of scientific integrity allegations, especially under Trump,” says Jacob Carter, lead author and a staffer in UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy in Washington, D.C. “We hadn’t gotten a lot of complaints about those agencies, so we omitted them.”

Logistical challenges

The survey is a much larger version of instruments UCS has fielded over the past decade to monitor administrative practices that impact federal scientists. And the Trump administration erected major bureaucratic barriers this time around. DOE has no public directory of employees, for example, and UCS’s attempt to obtain one under the federal sunshine law has so far been unsuccessful. UCS was also unable to obtain job titles for those working at EPA and the Census Bureau, a part of the Department of Commerce, thwarting its desire to survey only scientists. Carter thinks that largely explains the tiny response rates at those agencies. (The second survey question, after place or employment, asked what percentage of their job “involves science,” and those who said “none” were excluded from answering any substantive questions.)

Although the survey was sent to scientists at 16 agencies, eight agencies provide 94% of the responses. By sheer number of respondents, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ranks second behind NOAA, followed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), EPA, FWS, FDA, NPS, and the Agricultural Research Service. USGS scientists were by far the most engaged, chalking up a 19% response rate that was nearly triple the average for all agencies.

Carter says the survey documents several troubling practices that UCS has flagged in previous studies. They include censorship, both overt and self-imposed, fear of reprisals, and restrictions on attending meetings and otherwise communicating research findings. On the other hand, Carter says he was pleasantly surprised by how scientists responded to the question about job satisfaction. The survey found that, in aggregate, 37% reported no change in their attitude over the past year, and that 14% reported an increase in job satisfaction. That 51% total exceeds the 46% who reported a decrease in their satisfaction over the past year.

“Federal scientists are doing the best they can,” he says by way of explanation. “And they are remarkably resilient.”