Final EPA Scientific Integrity Policy Benefited Greatly from Public Input — and Now the Really Hard Work Begins

February 23, 2012 | 2:45 pm
Francesca Grifo
Former contributor

Under Administrator Lisa Jackson’s tenure, the EPA has worked to restore public trust in the agency. On her first day, she issued a “fishbowl” memo that committed the agency to three core values: scientific integrity, transparency, and the rule of law. This week, the EPA released its long-awaited scientific integrity policy and, as with other agencies, there is significant improvement over the first draft.

UCS submitted comments on an August 2011 draft policy and encouraged our supporters to do the same. UCS also put forward a line-by-line analysis of the draft policy.

The more than 25,000 comments EPA received on the draft policy seem to have made a difference. The agency should be commended for the attention it has devoted to this issue and the open process it used to develop the policy. With the long history of political interference at the EPA, it is all the more important that the agency’s policy be strong and comprehensive.

Overall, the policy makes strides towards protecting scientific integrity at the EPA, but falls short in several areas, including the release of visitor logs, definition of conflicts of interest, and protection of EPA scientific research when it is reviewed by the White House or other government agencies. Some of these challenges should be addressed by the White House, as it is clear that greater coordination and leadership are necessary.

The EPA also needs to put forward a detailed implementation plan to make the policy meaningful.

In a blog post last week, White House Science Advisor John Holden asked all federal agencies and departments covered by the White House Scientific Integrity Guidelines to publicly release “their final policies or their latest draft versions” by March 30. UCS will continue to compile what is released when it is released (and if you see an agency policy that’s not on our page, please let us know).

The development of a policy, of course, is only the first step. Now, EPA must implement the policy in a way that makes it part of the agency’s culture, not just another piece of paper.

The EPA Final Policy

The draft policy the EPA released in August had several positive components that have been retained in the final policy:

  • The policy has good general language about the importance of creating a strong culture of scientific integrity at the EPA, as well as the importance of transparency to agency accountability (Section IV-A).
  • The policy reaffirms the right of employees to express their personal views about any topic as long as they clarify that they are not speaking on behalf of the agency (Section IV-B-1, second bullet) and even helps by providing clear language to make that disclaimer.
  • The policy gives scientists the right to “review, correct, and approve” the scientific content of agency documents that rely upon their scientific work or opinions (Section IV-B-1, fifth bullet). The final policy adds a way to resolve a situation when a scientist disagrees with how her research was represented.
  • The policy advances the autonomy and accountability of federal advisory committees by making scientific expertise the basis for candidate selection, publicly releasing conflict-of-interest waivers, and clarifying that committee products are independent and not subject to revision by agency officials (Section IV-C-2).
  • The policy references EPA’s Principles of Scientific Integrity, which help set a positive tone and stress the agency’s commitment to independent, science-based policy making.

The EPA made the following improvements from the first draft to the final draft:

  • The policy was extended to apply not just to EPA scientists but to all staff, including political appointees, managers and supervisors. Just as importantly, the policy also applies to contractors and other non-staff (Section III, first paragraph).
  • The policy stresses in several places that supervisors and managers have a responsibility to uphold scientific integrity. It reiterates that supervisors and managers must not alter scientific products, intimidate or coerce scientists, influence scientific advisory boards or intentionally misrepresent scientific information (Section IV.A.3, first bullet).
  • The policy expands on whistle-blower protections to underscore that whistle-blowers must not experience retaliation or other punitive actions for reporting “allegations of scientific and research misconduct or who express a differing scientific opinion” (Section IV.A.3, third bullet).
  • The policy put in place a mechanism for addressing differing scientific opinions, or when an agency scientist “disagrees with the scientific data, scientific interpretations, or scientific conclusions” that are used in agency decision-making. However, the policy does not clarify whether differing scientific opinions will be reported publicly (Section IV.A.3, second bullet).
  • The policy better clarifies the role of public affairs officials, stating that they are not to “alter or change scientific findings or results” and that they should “ensure that science is plainly and clearly communicated for the intended audience in a timely fashion (Section IV.B.3, second bullet).
  • The policy improves public accountability by requiring the agency to release a report annually on the state of scientific integrity at the EPA. The policy also requires an agency-wide annual meeting on scientific integrity that involves senior leadership and input from EPA scientists and regional offices. This could be made even better by requiring annual reporting of the number of allegations of scientific misconduct that were made and the number that were resolved (Section V.D).

The following components of the policy have improved but could be further clarified:

  • While the policy prohibits EPA employees, from impeding the timely release of scientific findings or conclusions, it does not establish specific time frames for the dissemination of scientific research. (Section IV.A.2, first and second paragraphs)
  • The policy better clarifies that notification of public affairs officials is necessary when “communicating in an official Agency capacity” (Section IV.B.1, third bullet). It could be improved by explicitly stating that permission is not necessary.

There are also areas of the policy that are still problematic or not addressed:

  • In general, the policy could benefit from a “definitions” section. Definitions of potentially confusing terms are scattered throughout the document and difficult to locate.
  • The policy maintains that public affairs officials should attend media interviews; in the past, these “minders” have been used to intimidate scientists (Section IV.B.3, third bullet).
  • The accompanying EPA Scientific Integrity Committee Draft Charter is weak and not sufficiently specific. The EPA could provide more specifics on selection of members of the committee. Furthermore, there is no mention of whether the committee has oversight of scientific misconduct, dissenting opinions, and ethics. The policy or charter should better clarify who is in charge of the Scientific Integrity Task Force, and to whom that person reports, so we can see what political influence there may be on the task force. As this document is in draft form, the EPA should seek public input to strengthen it.
  • The policy does not protect EPA scientific documents from being manipulated during White House or inter-agency review. This leaves the agency’s scientific work open to manipulation and suppression by other parts of the federal government without public accountability.
  • The policy fails to address making visitor logs available. The public deserves to know who is meeting with agency officials while they are making science-based decisions so we can understand who may be influencing the science behind those decisions.
  • The agency has yet to create a publicly accessible scientific integrity web page for employees to access. Compare EPA’s scientific integrity page with NOAA’s scientific integrity page and you will see where EPA comes up short.
  • The agency still fails to define what constitutes a conflict of interest. The policy should explicitly state who is covered under conflicts of interest and whether they apply to spouses or grown children of an employee. It should also clarify what monetary value constitutes a conflict of interest and how far back reporting requirements should extend.

Finally, there are additional documents that should be created to improve scientific integrity at the EPA. For example, the agency should standardize a procedure for publishing scientific research (like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has done) to ensure that scientists do not face unnecessary bureaucratic or political obstacles to publishing their research.