Francesca Grifo Leaves UCS to Oversee Scientific Integrity at EPA

November 25, 2013 | 2:45 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

UCS’s Francesca Grifo, who has advocated for strong scientific integrity standards within government since 2005, started today as the EPA’s scientific integrity officer. She is charged with implementing the EPA’s scientific integrity policy. It’s a big win for the agency, and will hopefully spark a renewed commitment to scientific integrity within the federal government.

Few others outside the EPA have a more intimate knowledge of scientific integrity at the agency. Dr. Grifo co-authored a 2008 report on political interference in science at the EPA and a 2007 report on pressures on government climate scientists. She testified before Congress on scientific integrity at the EPA, the agency’s flawed 2008 ozone pollution standards, science and environmental regulatory decisions, and the partial shutdown of the EPA’s library system.

Dr. Francesca Grifo (left) waits to testify before Congress about science and endangered species in 2007. Photo is mine.

Dr. Francesca Grifo (left) waits to testify before Congress about science and endangered species in 2007. Photo is mine.

More recently, Dr. Grifo commented on the scientific soundness of the EPA’s endangerment finding that allowed it to move forward in regulating global warming emissions, and testified before Congress regarding the role of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board. She led analysis of the EPA’s scientific integrity policy, providing comments and line-by-line analysis that improved it from the draft to the final. Throughout the years, she has spoken with scores of EPA scientists regarding their thoughts of how the agency could better use science in decision-making.

Ensuring a Culture of Scientific Integrity

The EPA’s work comes under enormous scrutiny, and the agency is subject to numerous allegations of political interference in science (some valid, some not so much). This is understandable, as the agency has enormous responsibility for implementing some of our country’s most contentious environmental laws.

This level of scrutiny makes it all the more important for the EPA to invest significant resources in allowing its scientists to fully communicate their research results and allowing the public to understand the scientific basis of its decisions. While strong improvements have been made on paper, we recognize that the agency is challenged in fully realizing those improvements (witness continued complaints from journalists that they have trouble connecting with EPA experts).

We have long known that strengthening scientific integrity in government would not come with a single proclamation or new policy. Fully implementing strong scientific integrity standards in a way that will persist through various presidential administrations requires both leadership from agency officials and institutional changes that insulate science from political interference. Agencies must invest in employee training and public engagement that make a scientific integrity policy a living document, and makes transparency and accountability part of agency culture.

Over the past two years, I joined Dr. Grifo in multiple meetings with EPA staff to discuss the development and implementation of the EPA scientific integrity policy. The agency’s draft policy had some weaknesses, but staff were willing to seek public comment. After receiving thousands of comments, the agency significantly improved its policy (detailed here in a blog post by Dr. Grifo), and now has an important tool for ensuring a strong culture of scientific integrity within the agency.

Dr. Francesca Grifo (left) moderates a panel at the Newseum on access to government scientific information. EPA Administrator McCarthy is in the white blazer. Photo: UCS

Dr. Francesca Grifo (left) moderates a panel at the Newseum on access to government scientific information. EPA Administrator McCarthy is in the white blazer. Photo: UCS

Now, Dr. Grifo will lead the effort to fully implement these changes. On Thursday, the EPA released a scientific integrity training module that guides staff through the EPA’s policy—one more milestone in the road toward full scientific integrity reform.

Sharing EPA’s Standards Throughout Government

When the White House put out scientific integrity guidelines, it gave significant deference to agencies as to how to put those guidelines into practice. As a result, scientific integrity policies across the government are uneven. Some government entities, such as the USDA, simply restated the general guidelines and are not likely to see significant improvements. Other agencies, such as NOAA, made significant commitments that are already paying off. Others were somewhere in between.

But all agencies can learn from the actions of others. The EPA has the opportunity to demonstrate best practices and to share their experiences with those responsible for scientific integrity at other agencies and departments. I am hoping that other parts of the federal government will take advantage of Dr. Grifo’s presence at the EPA, and that the EPA will allow Dr. Grifo to share her expertise and experience with her colleagues.

Leaving an Impressive Legacy

In 2003, UCS pulled together a group of senior scientists to discuss concerns that the Bush administration was manipulating, suppressing, and distorting science in a way not seen before. The group included scientists who had advised all Republican and Democratic administrations dating back to President Eisenhower. The resulting scientist statement on scientific integrity, was eventually signed by nearly 15,000 U.S. scientists (a sampling of prominent signatories is here).

A banner depicting some of the nearly 15,000 signers of the scientist statement calling on the government to restore scientific integrity to federal policy making.

A banner depicting some of the nearly 15,000 signers of the scientist statement calling on the government to restore scientific integrity to federal policy making. Photo: UCS

Under Dr. Grifo’s leadership, and with a fantastic and dedicated staff, we developed scores of case studies and surveyed thousands of government scientists to measure the breadth of the problem. We broke original stories on political interference in science on issues from prescription drug safety to endangered species. For example, in partnership with several conservation groups, our investigative work brought to light the actions of an assistant secretary at the Department of Interior in 2007 who rewrote scientific documents to prevent the protection of several species under the Endangered Species Act. She later resigned. We brought scientists to Washington, DC to meet with members of Congress to build awareness about the misuse of science and develop support for restoring scientific integrity to federal policymaking.

Together, in 2007, we convened experts to put together a solutions agenda. The resulting report, Federal Science and the Public Good, remains a solid blueprint for restoring scientific integrity to federal policymaking. Through Science Debate 2008, we got both major presidential candidates on the record supporting scientific integrity reform. We met with multiple parts of the Obama transition team in 2009, laying the groundwork for President Obama’s pledge in his first inaugural address to “restore science to its rightful place.”

We provided advice to the Obama administration on what a strong scientific integrity directive would entail. When the administration’s efforts on this issue stalled, we put significant pressure on the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to issue guidelines that would allow agencies to move forward with scientific integrity plans. After guidelines were finally released, we made available a suite of resources for the agency representatives charged with developing scientific integrity policies, and discussed the resources with many of the individuals responsible for developing agency policies.

We spoke out when individuals within the Obama administration politicized science—on issues from smog to toxic silica dust to emergency contraception, and evaluated the administration’s progress on the president’s promises. We continued to push the White House and Congress to address challenges to scientific integrity that could not be addressed by individual agencies, such as whistleblower protections for employees who expose political interference in science.

UCS’s commitment to holding the administration accountable for its actions related to scientific integrity at EPA and elsewhere will not change. We will continue to investigate scientific integrity abuses and bring them to public attention. We will continue to keep the government on track to meet its scientific integrity commitments. We will identify those charges of political interference in science that have merit and discredit those that do not. And we will continue to push back on special interests that pressure government officials to politicize science.

It has been a great privilege to collaborate with Dr. Grifo for the past eight years, and I look forward to continuing to work with her as she enters government service.