EPA Scientific Integrity Policy Stuck in Utero
Several Key Components Still Missing with No Scheduled Completion
Washington, DC — Despite pledging a “culture of scientific integrity,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s official Scientific Integrity Policy remains largely unfinished more than three years after its launch. This protracted foot-dragging denotes managerial resistance and lack of high-level engagement, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which today wrote to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to ask her intervention in clearing away critical bureaucratic roadblocks.
Under a 2009 directive from President Obama, each agency with science responsibilities was ordered to adopt rules prohibiting political manipulation or suppression of science and protecting scientists from reprisal for findings deemed off-message. EPA got around to adopting a Scientific Integrity Policy in February 2012 and hired its first full-time Scientific Integrity Officer in 2013.
Today however, there still “are no formal processes for receiving or resolving allegations” of policy violations, according to the program’s latest annual report issued last month. Yet without any procedures, EPA has resolved more than a score of complaints – largely by dismissing them. To date, the agency has yet to substantiate a single instance of “loss of integrity.”
While EPA promises to adopt complaint procedures later this year, it has no implementation timetable for:
- Any protections for EPA employees “who express a differing scientific opinion, from retaliation or other punitive actions,” as required by the policy;
- Clearance procedures so EPA scientists know when they are allowed to publish scientific works. The EPA report says it “will work on creating an Agency framework for clearance procedures” but meanwhile some EPA offices have their own clearance rules while others have none; and
- Any media protocol spelling out when scientists may respond to press inquiries or interview requests or publicly discuss their findings, despite numerous complaints from journalists. Instead of clarifying media access, the Office of Public Affairs has added five new staff.
“These missing elements are not mere details – they are the guts of the policy without which it is just an empty promise,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that time may be running out. “At this rate, EPA will have nothing resembling a complete scientific integrity policy before Obama leaves office and these concerns may not be shared by the next administration.”
In addition, the program appears hobbled by practical and resource limitations. For example, the Scientific Integrity Policy applies to EPA contractors and grantees – a group that likely outnumbers EPA employees – but the agency has yet to write these requirements into grant or contract agreements. As for EPA employees, only a third have received detailed briefings about the policy.
These problems are compounded by the policy itself which is both vague and contradictory:
- Promising a “robust culture of dissent” while stressing the need for consistent public messaging;
- Repeatedly invoking the importance of “timeliness” but containing no deadlines; and
- Proclaiming the importance of scientific integrity but stipulating no penalties for violation.
“At the moment, EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy is of no practical help to scientists facing political pressure or reprisal,” added Ruch, pointing to current litigation involving EPA scientists persecuted due to their scientific dissent by agency managers. “EPA famously claims to operate ‘within a fishbowl’ but it is one in which the curtains are still tightly drawn.”