How's EPA's Science Advice Process Doing? Celebrating Sunshine and Progress at the EPA

March 15, 2017 | 11:05 am
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

Happy sunshine week! It’s a week to celebrate one of the pillars of our democracy: access to information. This year’s sunshine week seems especially important because of the current Administration’s open hostility toward the media, which has been shining a light on the federal government’s operations day in and day out and illustrating the clear conflicts of interest of the corporate cabinet.

Along with new attacks on transparency, some of the old ones are rearing their ugly heads, including the HONEST Act and the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act. These pieces of legislation are Trojan-horse transparency measures that would actually hurt the ability of agencies to protect public health by wasting agency resources and allowing industry to have more influence on agency science advice. They are attempts to fix problems that do not exist.

The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General’s new report recommends that EPA make slight tweaks to improve transparency of the agency’s interactions with its FACs, but overall, EPA’s process is efficient and attentive to information access. Source: EPA IG

This week, the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General (IG) released a report looking at how the EPA engages with and manages the recommendations from its eight science and research advisory committees. What do its results tell us? The EPA is already doing a very good job at ensuring that the operations of its federal advisory committees (FACs) and the agency’s responses to science advice are transparent. There is of course always room for improvement when it comes to public access to information, but the EPA is efficiently managing and communicating its interactions with its FACs. Its updates to comply with the most recent Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) amendments are still pending, but that’s a sunshine issue for another day.

Science advice at the EPA is already transparent

I’m glad the IG decided to take a critical look at science advice at the EPA. Federal Advisory Committees (FACs) are used throughout government, and each one is composed of experts tasked with a charge to review the science on a particular subject or to review the work of the agency in a draft report. The committee deliberates, weighs the evidence on the topic, and then provides recommendations to the agency. The Act that regulates FACs, the Federal Advisory Committee Act, requires measures to ensure transparency and public participation in the formation and management of committees, but the degree of transparency practiced by individual committees varies from agency to agency. We included recommendations for improving transparency and public access in our recent report, Preserving Scientific Integrity in Federal Policymaking.

The IG’s audit strictly looked at the recommendations piece of the process. It did not look at how that advice is implemented through policy, just how the agency responded to the FAC advice. The Science Advisory Board (SAB), Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and the Chemical Safety Advisory Committee were among the eight bodies analyzed by the IG. The IG looked at a random sampling of 13 FAC products and only found that three had not received responses from the EPA, one because the product’s recommendations were targeted at another agency, and two others because the EPA had already developed the responses offline. The EPA’s responses to the SAB, for example, were posted online as the IG recommended.

The IG pointed out that while the agency is already doing a good job of tracking its FAC responses and posting them online, it should update its training materials to highlight the importance of making EPA’s responses available online because, “According to the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, in order to ensure transparency, the agency needs to allow the ‘free flow of scientific information.’ The Scientific Integrity Policy is the framework to ensure integrity throughout the agency, including FACs, and states that the EPA needs to promote and provide access to the public by making scientific information available online.” While the EPA already scored highly in our assessment of agency scientific integrity policies (page 8 of this report), we would surely welcome improvements to agency processes that would further promote scientific integrity principles.

Under the Obama administration, federal agencies were charged with establishing policies and practices that would foster a culture of scientific integrity within the government. The EPA has one of the strongest scores in our assessment of these policies. Source: Goldman et al. 2017

Interviewed Designated Federal Officers (DFOs), the liaisons between the agency and FACs, had some suggestions on how to improve management of the FAC process including giving the committee more context for the charge questions, more relevant background information, and clarity on how conclusions should be reached and whether consensus is necessary. One other recommendation is that DFOs should “allow FAC chairs to provide input into committee member selection to ensure necessary expertise.”  This one is slightly concerning because if, for example, the EPA SAB Reform Act is passed, a chair might seek input from more industry representatives and fewer academic scientists, which could skew an advisory committee toward a specific industry-friendly conclusion.

The EPA has agreed to implement the IG’s recommendations, and we hope that the agency and its FACs continue to uphold the agency’s own scientific integrity policy, especially as EPA’s important work has been discounted by its own head, Mr. Scott Pruitt, and other key figures in the Trump administration.

“Democracy Dies in Darkness”

We must continue to fight back against congressional attacks that would diminish the role of science in policymaking, and ensure that agencies and their federal advisory committees are able to complete their important work with the resources provided. Many agencies are already stretched thin, and with proposed budget cuts and questionable leadership it is even more important that we allow scientific agencies the discretion to review and act on science, and give the public access to that information.

To quote the Washington Post’s new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness”—and, let’s face it, science doesn’t fare too well in the dark either. In the dark, White House Chief Strategist, Steve Bannon, will better be able to accomplish his goal of “deconstructing the administrative state,” a.k.a stripping away important science-based public health, safety, and environmental safeguards for millions of Americans. So let’s keep that light bright and fight hard to prevent further attacks on scientists and the role of science in our democracy.