Tradition of Transparency at EPA

February 22, 2013 | 12:10 pm
Francesca Grifo
Former contributor

The buzz is that sometime soon the White House is likely to nominate Gina McCarthy as the next administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. I hope the buzz is right. I recently had the opportunity to moderate a panel at a Lewis M. Branscomb Science and Democracy Forum hosted by the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists and the First Amendment Center. While I wished for more – I always do – she said some great things about scientific openness at the EPA.

For example:

“EPA has a policy of open transparency. I think that EPA has done the best job it can to give the scientists the platform they need to speak the truth and develop the data. There is no question that EPA carefully manages EPA’s business, which means that not everybody has the credibility within the agency to speak to everything going on in the agency…but we work very hard to make sure that the science is carefully considered and that we project as truthfully as we possibly can and provide an opportunity for our scientists to continue to excel at what they do.”

Gina McCarthy at UCS Forum Photo: UCS

The EPA has a proud tradition of transparency dating from 1983 when William Ruckelshaus took over the troubled agency. You can find the press release announcing his principles for how he would run the agency here – but my favorite part is the quote from a memorandum to all employees, in which he said, “When I recently appeared before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, I promised that EPA would operate ‘in a fishbowl.’ I said, ‘We will attempt to communicate with everyone from the environmentalists to those we regulate and we will do so as openly as possible.'”

“In order to make the public fully aware of any contacts with interested persons,” Ruckelshaus wrote, “I have directed that a copy of my appointment calendar for each week be placed in the Office of Public Affairs and made available to the public at the end of the week.” He added that “all other key EPA officials will make their appointment calendars available in a similar manner.”

Those are some big shoes to fill. Under the leadership of Lisa Jackson, the agency drafted one of the strongest scientific integrity policies in the executive branch. The policy clearly states scientist and researcher rights to express personal opinions with appropriate disclaimers and grants scientists the responsibility to review, approve and comment on final version of any scientific document that relies on their research or identifies them as a contributor.

Another pair of shoes to fill. But given what I have seen of Gina McCarthy, I think she might be able to do it and then some. Let’s hope she is named, confirmed and at her new desk in short order because there is still a great deal to get done. Reporters still have trouble connecting with agency scientists in a timely fashion. And implementation of the whole scientific integrity policy is far from done.

“Entities like EPA, that have scientific credibility, need to speak loudly and clearly. They need to put the data out, so people can analyze it themselves, take a look at it, understand what it means for them, for their business, for the way in which they live their lives. So they can challenge decisions that are being made effectively, so as political issues change and as those that are making decisions change, there is a constant ability to question whether government is doing what it’s supposed to do. It is a fundamental tenet of democracy – we’re not being led by our government leaders, we’re being led by what’s necessary for the people to make decisions effectively.”

 —Gina McCarthy