Wheeler Needs to Un-Gag the EPA


For Immediate Release: Jul 24, 2018
Contact: Kirsten Stade (202) 265-7337

Wheeler Needs to Un-Gag the EPA

Transparency Should Extend Beyond Calendars to Include Science

Washington, DC — New EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler pledged to put a premium on transparency during his tenure, but changes thus far have been only cosmetic, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) which is urging Wheeler to increase the flow of information both coming out of and going into the agency. Unlike his hyper-secretive predecessor Scott Pruitt, Wheeler has posted his appointment calendars but has done little to make the agency itself more transparent.

EPA’s very first Administrator, William Ruckelshaus, famously promised that the agency “would operate in a fishbowl,” but in recent years that bowl has been mighty cloudy. Today, PEER wrote Wheeler urging him to adopt measures that would make agency science and rule-making more transparent, including –

  • A protocol ensuring that EPA scientists and technical experts could submit papers for peer reviewed publications in their field without prior agency approval;
  • Rules requiring that administrative records EPA produces for its regulatory decisions contain all information considered, not just material that supports the decision; and
  • Remove the EPA Office of Public Affairs from any role in screening which agency or outside speakers may appear at conferences, webinars, or other presentations.

“A steady stream of sunlight would do a lot to reduce the public mistrust and the internal fear plaguing EPA,” stated PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett, a scientist and attorney formerly with EPA, noting that Wheeler has opened the doors to his office that Pruitt had sealed behind biometric locks. “Andy Wheeler can clear both the hallway and the information highway to share EPA science with the public it is supposed to serve and let EPA scientists consult with colleagues outside its walls.”

Back in 2013, when EPA adopted its Scientific Integrity Policy, the agency signaled that it would create “an Agency-wide framework for the approval of scientific communications.” In the succeeding years, however, no such framework emerged. This means that scientific and technical publications and presentations by agency staff remain subject to the complete discretion of EPA’s chain-of-command.

“The lack of a clear path creates a chilling effect in which scientists need to take career risks when they disseminate or discuss research results, activities other scientists take for granted,” said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that other federal agencies, such as the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, have clear policies that allow their staff to publish and speak with only a simple disclaimer that their views do not represent the official stance of the agency. “If one federal agency that regularly deals with controversial topics allows open publication by its scientific staff without adverse consequence, why can’t EPA?”

In addition to information going out of the agency, media and employees report that EPA’s Office of Public Affairs routinely screens presenters for agency external webinars and speaking engagements. PEER has a pending Freedom of Information Act request to ascertain who OPA has screened and why.


Read the PEER letter

Look at EPA’s lack of protocols for approval of publications or presentations

See the FWS open science policy

View the 1983 Ruckelshaus “fishbowl” memo

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