On EPA Scientific Integrity, Wall Street Journal is Short of Facts

May 26, 2017 | 4:17 pm
Gretchen Goldman
Former Contributor

An opinion piece in today’s Wall Street Journal misrepresents the facts about an annual meeting on scientific integrity at the EPA and the role of the EPA scientific integrity officer. Here are some details about what that meeting is and the role of federal agency scientific integrity officers. 

Scientific integrity at federal agencies

Let’s start with the basics. Scientific integrity policies were created at federal agencies in response to cases of political interference in science and the need for policies and practices that protect the role of science and scientists in the government. Now, 28 federal agencies have scientific integrity policies in place and many have scientific integrity officers that oversee the policy.

For example, the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy affirms these commonsense and noncontroversial expectations of all agency employees:

  • Ensure that the Agency’s scientific work is of the highest quality, free from political interference or personal motivations.
  • Represent his/her own work fairly and accurately.
  • Appropriately characterize, convey, and acknowledge the intellectual contributions of others.
  • Avoid conflicts of interest and ensure impartiality.
  • Be cognizant of and understand the specific programmatic statutes that guide their work.
  • Welcome differing views and opinions on scientific and technical matters as a legitimate and necessary part of the scientific process.

At EPA, the scientific integrity officer oversees a committee comprised of federal agency scientists. This committee is empowered to investigate allegations of political interference; these allegations can come from anyone. For example, if a coal company thought that Obama administration officials were misrepresenting science in developing power plant rules, they could file a complaint and it would be investigated. If an environmental group thinks that scientific analysis was suppressed to justify an industry-friendly decision, they could file a complaint and it would be investigated.

Importantly and intentionally, the scientific integrity officer is a civil servant not a political appointee so that they can properly investigate inappropriate political influence over the use of science at the agency.

Importantly, the role of the scientific integrity policy (and officer) isn’t about policy at all. The scientific integrity officer does not have authority over the Clean Power Plan, or air pollution standards, or whether or not to protect the public from a toxic pesticide. Rather, the scientific integrity policy is in place to ensure that the science that goes into policy decisions is not suppressed, distorted, or manipulated, and that scientists who work for EPA are able to do their work free from political interference. With these policies in place and fully implemented, it is more likely that scientific information can effectively inform policy decisions. Again, that is just common sense.

And to be clear, ensuring scientific integrity is important no matter what political party is in charge. All modern presidents have politicized science in some way. Here, for example, is a sampling of scientific integrity criticisms I and my colleagues had of the Obama administration. The problems span agencies and issue areas—from drug approvals to endangered species to media access to government scientists.

The EPA Annual Stakeholder Meeting on Scientific Integrity

The Environmental Protection Agency has taken scientific integrity seriously and devoted resources to approaching it in a transparent and thoughtful way. Part of that approach has been to have an annual stakeholder meeting led by the agency scientific integrity officer after the annual report is published.

The meeting, which I’ve attended in the past, is designed to provide an opportunity for stakeholders to air any concerns and ask questions about scientific integrity. Here, stakeholders include industry, civil society groups, scientific societies, or anyone else with an interest and stake in scientific integrity.

The meetings started in 2013 as listening session for agency scientific integrity staff to hear from voices both internal and external to the agency. In 2014 and 2015, the agency had separate meetings for civil society groups and industry.

In 2016, at the request of the American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical manufacturing industry, the meetings were combined. Everyone was in the same room. Nobody complained. There was no controversy. There were no objections from industry.

The EPA has relied on the ACC to invite other industry stakeholders to the meeting and planned to do the same this year. We asked the scientific integrity officer for a list of invitees to last year’s meeting; it includes more than 50 industry affiliates, including representatives from Monsanto, Dow, CropLife America, ExxonMobil, and the American Beverage Association, just to name a few.

It is not a closed meeting and the meeting’s agenda is no secret. So to help demonstrate how non-controversial this meeting really is, my colleague Michael Halpern will be live-tweeting this year’s meeting. In the past, the meetings have centered around the findings of EPA’s annual scientific integrity report—a publicly available document that details scientific integrity cases and progress made at the agency each year. This year the agenda is as follows:

The 2017 Stakeholder Meeting

  • The Meeting Agenda:
    • Overview of the year’s Scientific Integrity challenges and accomplishments presented by the Scientific Integrity Official
    • Open Q & A

The EPA Scientific Integrity Officer, Francesca Grifo, has for several years been overseeing scientific integrity at the EPA. Dr Grifo, a scientist with a PhD in botany from Cornell University, previously led the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. You can read more about her position and high qualifications for this job here.

Overreactions and underappreciations

The EPA should be lauded for choosing to provide an open and accessible way for those of us outside the agency who care about decision makers having high-quality science and technical data inform decisions to learn more and ask questions. A meeting of stakeholders in business and nonprofits  to inform agency work should be a welcomed cornerstone of effective government.

For some reason, since a new administration has come into power, some want to suggest that the meeting is controversial. Notably, nobody from industry has complained about the meeting or the policy. Instead, complaints are coming from one House representative and a Wall Street Journal editorial writer.

Any reader who wants to be more informed about the EPA’s scientific integrity work should read the policy and the annual reports from 2013, 2014, and 2015. I look forward to the meeting and to reporting back on the results.