The EPA has taken steps to reaffirm the free speech rights of independent scientists who advise the agency, backing away from a memorandum that invited criticism from science and journalism groups late this summer. A clarification of EPA policy has been sent to scientists on the EPA Science Advisory Board and other agency committees that provide scientific analysis and advice and posted on the EPA website.
In August, scientists raised concerns that a new memorandum would require them to check with the EPA before they spoke publicly about anything related to their expertise, an obviously untenable position. The Center for Science and Democracy at UCS subsequently joined several science and journalism societies on a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy urging her to revisit the new policy.
Shortly thereafter, the agency agreed to do so. The clarification is clear and concise and, unlike the previous memorandum, one doesn’t need to consult a lawyer to understand its intent. The clarification, which quotes liberally from the agency’s scientific integrity policy and the Science Advisory Board handbook, makes clear that scientists on EPA committees have the explicit right to respond to any inquiry in their capacity as private citizens.
It also gives them the ability to speak about most committee business except for discussions that are happening during the “deliberative phase,” which is generally the time when scientist are having frank discussions about the science to arrive at a consensus view. Any scientist, of course, is free to leave her name off of an assessment that she thinks has been improperly prepared, or to resign from a committee that she thinks has been compromised.
Some journalists may be concerned that keeping the initial memorandum on the books might send the wrong message, or worry that scientists won’t feel empowered to report malfeasance. It will be necessary to keep an eye on the agency to make sure this doesn’t happen.
While in a best case scenario the agency would have just rescinded the initial memo, the clarification should return the committee to business as usual. These are the kinds of rules that scientists are used to, and we don’t anticipate them having much of an effect on the ability of independent scientists to speak openly or help the public understand the work of EPA advisory committees.
The context here is important, of course: the EPA Science Advisory Board has been subject to relentless attacks by members of Congress who don’t appreciate its work. The clarification comes as Congress continues its disingenuous war against the EPA and the way it uses science to develop and update policies that protect our health and environment. The first bill the lame duck House of Representatives passed when it returned after the election would increase corporate influence over the Science Advisory Board and limit the ability of independent scientists to present before it. It’s not surprising that the agency’s first reaction was to close ranks.
But here, by clarifying the initial memorandum and recognizing that it may have gone too far, the EPA is doing the right thing. If adopted more widely, the constraints could have curtailed public access to thousands of subject matter experts who give freely share their expertise to inform critical decisions about our health and environment. It also could have discouraged these experts from serving on these important committees. I’m happy to see that the constraints in the initial memorandum were dialed back, and hope other agencies considering similar moves will take notice.
Ultimately, scientists want clarity, and the press and the public wants access to their expertise. The new memorandum accomplishes both of these goals. We should move forward with the presumption and expectation that scientists, if they choose, are free to publicly share anything that would not compromise the integrity of the deliberative processes adopted by the committee and commonly accepted among scientists.
Further, the high profile this issue received has made more people aware of the tremendous resource that advisory committee members represent. Tens of thousands of experts serve on nearly a thousand federal advisory committees throughout the government, and can help the public become familiar not only with science but also how that science informs (or fails to inform) policy.
To be sure, we will continue to push for the rights of scientists inside the EPA and all federal agencies to speak freely, as called for in policies already on the books but imperfectly implemented. And journalists will and should keep up the pressure to get meaningful access to agency subject matter experts, access that is critical both in times of emergency and over the long term.
But now, the latest action signals that the EPA is willing to rethink its practices as well as its policies, and the agency is well served to do so. We look forward to informing those efforts.