Administrator Michael Regan is Bringing Science Back to the EPA

March 26, 2021 | 2:55 pm
EPA Administrator Michael ReganEPA
Jacob Carter
Former Contributor

This week, the new administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Michael Regan, told employees that the agency would “adhere to the highest levels of integrity” for science. The EPA also is accounting for attacks on science that occurred under the prior administration, which politicized agency decisions. This accounting will help to acknowledge the harm caused by political interference under the prior administration. It also will help the agency pinpoint decisions that may need remedying and can provide information to the agency on how to strengthen its scientific integrity policies and enforcement to help prevent similar future incidents.

This is a huge deal for science-based decisionmaking at the EPA, and not only because political appointees sidelined science extensively at the EPA during the past four years. This commitment also is a big leap forward for scientific integrity, as we never have seen an administration take such significant steps to address this issue. The Biden administration also has made a strong commitment to environmental justice, which will help to protect the most underserved communities from the harm caused when science is sidelined. Following the science is going to make government decisions much more effective than they have been during the past four years, and I strongly believe that people’s lives, health, and safety will greatly improve because of it.

More good news at the EPA!

On January 27 of this year, the Biden administration issued a presidential memorandum to strengthen scientific integrity and evidence-based decision-making across the federal government. In this memo, the administration tasked multiple experts on this issue to review current scientific integrity policies as well as processes that determine the make-up and functioning of scientific advisory committees. In Regan’s email to EPA employees, we are seeing that the wheels are already turning at the agency to implement the actions directed by this presidential memorandum.

The EPA’s science adviser and scientific integrity official are leading efforts at the agency to implement the president’s memorandum. This team will be “reviewing and evaluating the agency’s scientific Federal Advisory Committees,” to ensure that they are made up of qualified experts who do not have conflicts of interest.

The past four years saw multiple attacks on scientific advisory committees. Many committees were disbanded, and an executive order, which has since been overturned by President Biden, tasked agencies to arbitrarily cut all advisory committees by one-third. EPA also issued a directive, finally ruled illegal by the courts in 2020, that considered receiving EPA grant funding a conflict of interest, disqualifying many experts from membership.  As a result of these attacks, individuals without necessary scientific expertise to advise agencies on certain topics, such as air pollution, and who have significant conflicts of interests, were embedded into these committees. This affected important decisions at the agency such as updating the standard for fine particulate matter air pollution. The agency failed to listen to the science on fine particulate matter air pollution and create a more stringent standard, which negatively affected the health of many people in the US, but particularly communities of color.

Part of the solution to this issue could include Regan instituting a new nominations process for all EPA committees to undo the damage done by the Trump administration and restore independent science advice at the agency. The review that the EPA is undertaking also will help to protect the health and safety of the most underserved communities in the country through restoring science to advisory committees.

The EPA team is also “reviewing and updating any agency policies, processes, and practices that impede the development of critical scientific assessments and prevent the best available science and data from informing the equitable delivery of programs.” This also is great news given the suppression of scientific assessments and lack of data collection that we observed during the past four years. For example, at the onset of the prior administration the EPA immediately stopped a request for data on methane emissions. Methane is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the progression of global climate change. If EPA were able to move forward with collecting such data, this would help to inform decisions on reducing methane emissions and protect people from the negative effects of climate change.

Regan also said that the EPA team will be “fostering a culture of evaluation and continuous learning.” Fostering a culture where scientists trust their leadership and feel that scientific integrity is strong may be one of the most important things that an agency can do to restore the role of science in decisionmaking. In a 2018 survey of federal scientists, we found 82 percent (345 respondents) of EPA scientists agreed that the level of consideration of political interests hindered the EPA’s ability to make science-based decisions. And 52 percent (216 respondents) reported they would not trust all parts of the EPA to assess and address scientific integrity issues fairly. Regan has been tasked before with fostering a better culture of trust and building morale among employees at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality. His letter to staff at the EPA is a strong first step to rebuilding trust and morale among scientists at the EPA such that they feel their work matters and will be considered in the agency’s decisions.

Which agency is next?

It is great to see this news on strengthening scientific integrity and evidence-based decision-making at the EPA, and we hope that other leaders of science-based agencies will follow in Regan’s footsteps. While these initial steps taken by the Biden administration are great and will help to strengthen scientific integrity, the work is not over. The review processes of scientific integrity policies will have to be effectively conducted by experts on the issue, recommendations made, and agencies will have to implement the changes suggested by the review team. The administration will need to provide guidance to agencies on how to improve, or create if they don’t have them, trainings on scientific integrity. Scientists are still not afforded the right to speak to the media freely at many agencies, so this too will need to be addressed. We will be watching to ensure that the Biden administration follows through on their commitments to strengthen scientific integrity and evidence-based decisionmaking.

In 2020, we developed a set of recommendations for how agencies can strengthen scientific integrity and science-based decisionmaking. One of our recommendations was that heads of agencies should commit to scientific integrity and the use of science in decisions—the exact action that Administrator Regan just took at the EPA. We also recommended that agencies review and strengthen their existing policies (e.g., scientific integrity, scientific communications, conflicts of interests) and scientific advisory committee processes. It is therefore great to see both the presidential memorandum and the EPA taking these steps to bring science back to the decisionmaking table.

I cannot emphasize how important it is for the Biden administration and the EPA to take the issues of scientific integrity and evidence-based decisionmaking seriously. Science is still our best system for understanding how the natural world works and therefore reflects our world’s best and most current knowledge. Science should be at the forefront of our government’s decisions, especially when our health, safety, and the state of our environment are on the line.