Washington, DC —Despite growing concerns about political interference with science, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is requiring prior headquarters approval for all communications by its scientists with the media, according to an agency email released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). EPA’s stance of screening all press interviews is at variance with recent pronouncements of scientific openness by two of its sister agencies, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In a February 9, 2006 email to all staff, Ann Brown the News Director for the agency’s science arm, the Office of Research and Development (ORD), admonished –
“We are asked to remind all employees that EPA's standard media procedure is to refer all media queries regarding ORD to Ann Brown, ORD News Director, prior to agreeing to or conducting any interviews…Support for this policy also will allow reasonable time for appropriate management response.”
By contrast, less than a week earlier on February 4, 2006, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin sent an all-employee email in which he committed the agency to “open scientific and technical inquiry and dialogue with the public.” Griffin stated, “It is not the job of public affairs officers to alter, filter or adjust engineering or scientific material produced by NASA's technical staff.”
Yesterday, in a Valentine Day message to all staff, NOAA Administrator Conrad Lautenbacher wrote:
“Our media standards also reflect an open policy. We encourage our public affairs staff to keep abreast of media interests. I encourage our scientists to speak freely and openly. Dozens of you every day are talking to the media and providing the results of peer reviewed science across a wide variety of NOAA topics. We ask only that you specify when you are communicating personal views and when you are characterizing your work as part of your specific contribution to NOAA’s mission.”
“Why are scientists at NASA free to answer questions about global warming while their colleagues at EPA are not?” asked PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Science does not come in Republican or Democratic flavors; scientists should be able to discuss findings without having to check whether facts comport with management policy.”
Scientists often fall outside the coverage of whistleblower protection laws and thus, scientists who violate agency gag rules may be punished for insubordination. Corrective legislation (HR 839 by Representative Waxman and S 1358 by Senator Richard Durbin) that would grant scientists the right to openly discuss their findings is pending before both houses of Congress.
Ironically, at the same time that it is restricting media contacts with scientists, EPA itself is engaged in an aggressive public relations effort called “Science for You” that promotes the importance of the scientific research being conducted at the agency.