Sustained Outrage

EPA proposes ‘pathetically weak’ science policy

On Friday afternoon, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued a draft of its “scientific integrity policy,” a set of guidelines the agency said:

… Reflects the Obama Administration’s commitment to the ethical standards and transparency necessary for ensuring the highest quality science.

The group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility isn’t too keen on the proposal, issuing a news release calling it “pathetically weak” and saying:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is proposing a scientific integrity policy that affirms the status quo while codifying absolute agency control over scientific information presented to the media, Congress and peers.

… The 12-page EPA proposal consists largely of lofty rhetoric lauding current practices. Its sole pronouncement on a key issue says the agency “expects EPA scientists and engineers, regardless of grade level, position or duties to: Ensure that their work is of the highest integrity, free from political influence.” This implies that it is up to scientists to fight off management interference but the draft policy provides them no tools for doing so.

PEER points out:

By contrast, the proposal clearly authorizes managers and public affairs officials to screen information:

— Any contact with the media must adhere to “EPA’s and their Program Office’s or Region’s clearance procedures associated with ensuring accuracy and disseminating scientific information and scientific assessments” yet these clearance procedures are not laid out. Plus, “public affairs staff’ is told to “attend interviews to ensure that the Agency is being fully responsive to media questions and to ensure…consistency…”

— Scientists’ ability to publish or present papers is “subject to any management approval that may be required…” and

— Even private statements by EPA staff with an appropriate disclaimer could be sanctioned for failure to “represent the results of their scientific activities…objectively, thoroughly, and …consistent with their official responsibilities.”

Jeff Ruch, executive director of PEER, said:

In the name of transparency, EPA has tightened the clamps on information flow as well as over what its specialists can say or write. EPA brags that it is ‘committed to operating as if in a fishbowl.’ Well, someone needs to clean the fishbowl because it is getting pretty murky in there.

The Union of Concerned Scientists has previously criticized EPA for allowing politics to interfere with science, and issued a model policy for media interactions that is much more open than the language included in the new EPA proposed scientific integrity policy.

And a group I work with, the Society of Environmental Journalists, has previously criticized EPA for insisting on having public affairs staffers act as “minders” during media interviews with agency scientists and other officials.