EPA Science Divorced From Needs and Discombobulated

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EPA Science Divorced From Needs and Discombobulated

Science Advisory Board Seeks Better Integration of Science into Agency Decisions

Washington, DC — The state of science within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in disrepair and needs major improvements, according to a fact-finding review by its own Science Advisory Board. Scores of interviews with EPA scientists reveal deep dysfunctions and disconnects among its branches, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

The Science Advisory Board (SAB), a 32-year old Congressionally-chartered panel of outside scientists to provide guidance to EPA, began a review of how well the agency uses science in its decision-making in late 2008. On March 31, 2010, the SAB finished the fact-finding stage of its review in which it spoke with EPA scientists from each major branch of the agency. Its major conclusions include that –

  • Scientists are cut off from decision-making by agency managers with little science background;
  • Science resources are balkanized into stove-piped agendas. The biggest concentration of scientists, the Office of Research and Development, is not tied into the research needs of EPA’s regional offices working on an array of problems requiring applied and basic science; and
  • Scientists are disenfranchised within EPA with limited career options, lower pay and little chance for advancement.

The net result is SAB found “regional concerns that science needs are not met” since those needs “do not seem to be an Agency priority.” One disturbing but telling result regions reported is that “EPA has dis-invested in environmental monitoring” so that it no longer tracks long-term trends and effects – a key component of its mission.

“EPA’s science program suffers from the ‘flavor-of-the-month’ syndrome in which the agency’s political leadership announces a new priority every month in response to the latest media exposé without first finding out what its regions are doing or need to be effective,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

The SAB also noted a surprisingly low proportion of EPA resources devoted to science: “Although 50-60% of regional staff are scientists and engineers, many of them are not working in those fields and do not have the support or capacity to provide the science needed.There are fewer senior scientist positions at EPA, compared to other federal agencies (e.g., National Institutes of Health, Food and Drug Administration, and Centers for Disease Control).”

“While EPA’s budget has ballooned under Obama, its investment in science has not,” added Ruch, noting that the SAB lauded the candor and courage of the 73 EPA staff it interviewed. “What is welcome but rare about this Science Advisory Board fact-finding is that someone finally started speaking with EPA scientists to find out what they think.”

The SAB is slated to complete its report later this year. EPA is not required to adopt or act upon Science Advisory Board recommendations.


Read SAB Fact Finding from staff interviews

Trace the decline of EPA’s science program

Look at a recent EPA scrambling of science priorities

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