Recently, the Sierra Club filed a complaint with the EPA Inspector General alleging that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy by making false statements about climate change science. The organization asserts that Pruitt’s statements misrepresent the scientific consensus and the work of the agency’s own scientists, and that Pruitt’s actions “represent a significant loss of scientific integrity at the agency.”
Reuters is reporting that the IG has referred the complaint to the agency’s scientific integrity official. It is likely that the EPA will proceed carefully in deciding whether to consider this as an issue that is subject to the agency’s scientific integrity standards.
Scientific integrity policies were developed in response to overt political interference in science that became common during the George W. Bush administration. Scientists were censored. Official scientific reports were altered by political appointees. Testing processes were changed to suggest that unsafe products were really safe after all.
These policies exist to prevent political interference in the process by which science informs decision making. They exist to protect the rights of scientists to communicate about their work and to prevent the manipulation and suppression of scientific evidence throughout the policymaking process. These types of actions are deserving of scrutiny and correction.
Now, it is beyond absurd that we live in a world where we have to contemplate castigating the head of the EPA for knowingly misrepresenting climate change science. What Scott Pruitt said on CNBC was bananas. It’s unacceptable for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to make such patently false statements.
His words can damage employee morale, make EPA a less attractive place for scientists to work, and, as the Sierra Club notes in its complaint, undermine public trust in the agency. Further, Pruitt’s comments combined with his significant ties to the oil and gas industry could foreshadow direct political interference in the EPA’s endangerment finding, which states that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare.
And it is tempting to want to explore different methods to hold public officials accountable for lying about established science.
But I worry that scientific integrity officials will be quickly overwhelmed if the policies are used to fact check statements made by public officials. If scientific integrity officials are expected to police the statements of political appointees, they would spend all of their time looking at these kinds of allegations, and have little time left over to investigate actions that can have the most significant effects on science-based decision making.
Our collective goal should be to ensure that scientific integrity policies continue to protect agency scientists and the work they do. Attempts to apply scientific integrity policies too broadly have the potential to distract public attention and agency investigative resources away from the real damage that the Trump administration is doing to our collective ability to meet the challenge of climate change and protect public health and safety.
Fortunately, there is a process in place to deal with allegations of political interference in science, and I look forward to seeing how this one plays out.
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