Washington, DC — 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, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). The plan was developed under President Obama’s 2009 directive that agencies adopt rules prohibiting political interference with science, promoting transparency and extending whistleblower protection to scientists. Yet, the EPA proposal appears to accomplish none of these objectives.
“EPA has put forward by far the weakest scientific integrity rules of any agency. In many ways, it is a big step backward,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “Under EPA’s plan to protect scientific integrity, only its scientists can be punished for misconduct as there are no firm rules against managers manipulating or masking technical work and no mechanism to enforce rules if they existed.”
Posted last Friday afternoon, 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.
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.”
“In the name of transparency, EPA has tightened the clamps on information flow as well as over what its specialists can say or write,” added Ruch, noting that in 2009 EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson refused to address the absence of guidance for contact with media or Congress or the ability to publish and lecture. “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.”
On other key topics, the EPA draft is confusing or downright incoherent. For example, it –
- Refers to “adopting appropriate whistleblower protections” but never spells out what they are, what they will protect or who will enforce them;
- Sets up a Scientific Integrity Committee which may receive scientific misconduct complaints but provides no clue as to how it is supposed to handle them. It then tells employees they may also direct complaints “directly to the OIG” (Office of Inspector General), even though the OIG has no power to enforce findings, nor is it clear that it has the expertise to referee technical disputes.
- Lays out a hopelessly vague definition of scientific misconduct which, apart from “fabrication, falsification or plagiarism,” does not clearly ban political suppression, manipulation or skewing of technical information – the very practices which prompted the Obama directive.
The public comment period for this EPA draft is only one month, ending on September 6th.
Read the draft EPA Science Integrity Policy
Compare the Interior Department Scientific Integrity rules
Look at the slow, uneven Obama scientific integrity initiative
View the opaque EPA “fishbowl” policy
See the PEER prescription for EPA scientific integrity reform