Is EPA Excessively Restricting Access to its Science Advisory Board Members?

August 12, 2014 | 9:58 am
Andrew Rosenberg
Former Contributor

UCS learned recently that at a closed-door meeting of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) on July 24, the EPA put forward a new memorandum from EPA Chief of Staff Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming that seems to extend free speech restrictions to independent scientists who advise the agency. The memo is written in a way that could discourage scientists from informing public discussion around important topics.

Beginning Farmers and Ranchers Advisory Committee

The EPA’s overly restrictive new policy restricting independent scientists that advise the agency from speaking to the public could discourage experts from serving on critical science advisory committees throughout government. Pictured are members of the USDA Advisory Committee on Beginning Farmers and Ranchers in 2010. Photo: USDA.

Several science and journalism groups wrote a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy today urging her to clarify immediately that independent scientists who advise the EPA, as well as all scientists who work for the agency, are free to speak publicly about any scientific issue in a personal capacity without asking for permission from the agency. The letter was signed by the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, the American Geophysical Union, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Society for Conservation Biology.

According to the memo and the new policy it cites, SAB members should not directly respond to questions, formal or informal, from outside the committee without EPA approval. The language is sufficiently vague and contradictory that it would be easy for a scientist to interpret that she can’t speak publicly about any scientific issue under consideration by the committee, even in a personal capacity. The memorandum conflicts directly with the SAB handbook and the agency’s scientific integrity policy.

So what’s the problem? SAB members have expertise in diverse disciplines and do many other things besides serve on the advisory board.  They are almost certainly contacted by members of the public and the press fairly often as experts, and the topics they might discuss or opine on of course overlap with the work of the SAB. That’s why they were appointed in the first place!

Why scientists serve on advisory committees

Serving on a federal advisory committee such as the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, it is certainly an opportunity for scientists to directly communicate with policy-makers, hopefully leading to better science-based policies. And it is part of the “public service” aspect of academic and other scientist’s jobs. Of course, it is nice to be recognized as a leader in your field of study too.

Speaking from my experience serving on four Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) chartered panels, however, it is also a lot of work. The bureaucracy associated with these committees can be a bit daunting, between meeting rules, conflict of interest and annual financial disclosures, travel requirements and the like.

But most scientists are happy to serve and use their expertise to have an impact on issues they care about. The most important part of participating in a FACA committee, for both the members and the government, is the opportunity to give independent advice from outside the government.

The agency justifies these new constraints by asserting that SAB members are “special government employees” and therefore should adhere to the (already too restrictive) rules for regular employees. This kind of control of independent scientists could set a bad precedent for the hundreds of federal scientific advisory committees throughout the federal government.

Scientists shouldn’t need to take a vow of silence should they choose to formally advise the government. Just as troublingly, scientists who work for the EPA also face significant barriers in communicating with the public. While the EPA’s media policy encourages its scientists to share their expertise with the public, evidence suggests that the reality is far different.

Continued problems with public access to scientists

In January, 300,000 West Virginia residents and reporters seeking information about the safety of the water supply in the wake of a major chemical spill were stonewalled for days by EPA public affairs officials. In early July, 38 media and good government associations wrote President Obama with concerns about excessive message control at the EPA and throughout the government:

Journalists are reporting that most federal agencies prohibit their employees from communicating with the press unless the bosses have public relations staffers sitting in on the conversations. Contact is often blocked completely….Reporters seeking interviews are expected to seek permission, often providing questions in advance. Delays can stretch for days, longer than most deadlines allow…

[W]hen journalists cannot interview agency staff, or can only do so under surveillance, it undermines public understanding of, and trust in, government… [t]his is about fostering a strong democracy where people have the information they need to self-govern and trust in its governmental institutions.

The Center for Public Integrity has been waiting five months for an interview with EPA officials about air pollution from fracking operations. The Center’s excruciatingly painful and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get someone at EPA to discuss the issue on the record is detailed here.

In contrast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration explicitly gives its scientists the right to speak publicly without asking for permission. And guess what? The sky has not fallen.

Transparency best serves the public

The public is best served by scientists speaking directly about their work and expertise, without their views and interpretations filtered through public affairs officers or political appointees. To be sure, scientists should be clear when they are speaking in their personal capacity as an expert, not on behalf of a specific advisory committee or the agency.

Those of us who are asked to serve on FACA and other panels like this know or quickly learn how to walk this line. We respect our colleagues and the process of keeping our advice independent.

The EPA Science Advisory Board has an enormously important role in providing that independent advice as the agency grapples with its statutory mandates for clean air, water, control of toxic substances, climate change and more. Greater restrictions on the ability of the SAB members to speak to the public and the press confuse the process, bring the independence of the SAB into question, and reduce rather than enhance the public’s understanding of the critical issues it deals with.

The political risk comes from trying to control scientist speech, not from what they might say. A better approach would be for EPA would be to reiterate that SAB members are always free to respond directly to inquiries within their area of expertise that SAB is considering (though have an obligation make clear that they are responding in a personal capacity and to inform the designated federal official when they are doing so).

The EPA needs independent advice and so do its constituents.  The agency should clarify its policies in a way that allows SAB members—and all EPA employees—to speak freely.