EPA Inspector General Pushes Agency on Scientific Integrity

September 3, 2013 | 1:50 pm
Michael Halpern
Former contributor

The EPA inspector general last week released the results of an investigation following up on the agency’s implementation of its scientific integrity policy (thanks to Michal Conger of the Washington Examiner for the heads up). But here’s an interesting question: is the inspector general’s attention misplaced?

Scientific integrity at the EPA

A little background: the EPA and other federal scientific agencies were required to develop scientific integrity policies in response to a scientific integrity memorandum issued by the White House in December 2010.  When the EPA came out with a draft policy and sought public input, UCS and its supporters submitted thousands of comments with suggestions for improvements. You can read the mediocre draft policy, UCS’s line-by-line comments, and the considerably improved final policy, here.

When fully implemented, strong scientific integrity policies can protect government scientists and prevent political interference in science. The EPA is ahead of the curve compared to other agencies when it comes to scientific integrity.

When fully implemented, strong scientific integrity policies can protect government scientists and prevent political interference in science. The EPA is ahead of the curve compared to other agencies when it comes to developing and implementing these policies.

The inspector general’s report focuses on the development of an annual report and a training for agency employees. The inspector general details concerns about the pace of implementation, and then recognizes that the agency responded promptly to his concerns and is making progress.

So let’s be clear: the EPA has one of the best scientific integrity policies on the books compared to other agencies. The agency created a Scientific Integrity Officer position and has held public meetings on its new policy. The new policy has the potential to change the agency culture for the better. The EPA is ahead of the curve.

I’ve met several times with top agency officials. I believe that EPA leadership is committed to creating a strong culture of scientific integrity within the agency. This change takes time, more than any of us would like. Agencies have received little guidance from the White House since they submitted their final scientific integrity policies. As a result, the only agencies that are moving forward with meaningful implementation are the ones with senior officials who are paying attention.

The EPA is a complex beast. And because its mission is wide-ranging and touches many parts of the economy, the agency receives a lot of scrutiny and political pressure, much of it scurrilous.

Is the agency perfect? Not by a long shot. In 2007, we surveyed EPA scientists and found pervasive political interference in their scientific work.

But the inspector general report should not be seen as evidence of poor scientific integrity of the agency. In some ways, the EPA is a victim of its own success. Other agencies have poorly developed policies and have taken few or no steps towards meaningful implementation. For example, only two agencies, NOAA and the Department of Interior, have issued reports on their activities. Others, such as the Department of Energy, did little more than restate general principles outlined by the White House, with no stated accountability or implementation plans.

What should come next?

Over the years, the agency has made some improvements. But recently, I’ve spoken to scientists who are still unsure about their rights to publicly communicate their research and analysis, and who don’t feel fully protected for reporting political interference in their work. One scientist told me she felt she was banned from sharing her opinions at public meetings.

This indicates that simply creating a strong policy isn’t sufficient. It’s essential to make implementation a priority at all levels. Otherwise, the message will filter down too slowly and unevenly.

So where would the inspector general’s attention be better placed? The office could work with the acting scientific integrity official to survey agency employees in order to establish a baseline from which to evaluate the success of the trainings. The office could detail how it plans to work with the scientific integrity official to ensure that alleged violations of scientific integrity are adequately addressed.

Other inspectors general are taking an interest in the implementation of scientific integrity policies, and are demonstrating a desire to hold their agencies and departments accountable to the new policies. Recently the Interior Department inspector general criticized the department for allegedly failing to make restitution to whistleblowers who reported political interference in science related to freshwater mussels.

Scientific integrity reform won’t happen with the stroke of a pen. It will take repeated, long-term efforts to protect scientists, increase transparency, improve scientific advice to government, and ensure adequate scientific monitoring and enforcement of laws and regulations. It won’t come easy. But as long as we are able to focus the attention of agency officials on strengthening and fully implementing the policies, we will continue to make progress.