UCS Reports on Interference at EPA

The Union of Concerned Scientists has released another disturbing report about political interference with government science. For Interference at the EPA, they surveyed EPA scientists from all of the agency’s scientific program offices and 10 regional offices, and from more than a dozen research laboratories, to learn about the extent and type of political interference with EPA science. Like UCS’s previous investigations on the Food and Drug Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and federal climate scientists, this one found significant administration manipulation of science that is supposed to serve our health and environment.

I’m sure none of our regular readers will be surprised to hear that 889 scientists (60% of the 1,586 who completed surveys) personally experienced at least one incident of political interference during the past five years, or that 516 scientists knew of “many or some” cases in which EPA political appointees inappropriately involved themselves in scientific decisions. The survey did turn up a few things that were less predictable, though – and the report is well worth reading in any case, because it’s an excellent compilation of what ought to be going wrong at EPA, where the problems are, and how to fix them.

One of the interesting findings was that many scientists point to the White House Office of Management and Budget as the chief problem. We’ve written before about how the Bush Administration is using the OMB to erect new hurdles for regulatory agencies, and apparently a lot of EPA scientists are running into the hurdles. Here are a few of the things EPA scientists said about OMB:

• “Get the White House, industry, and OMB out of what is supposed to be science-based decision making.”

• “Also, for your next survey look at OMB. That is a true source of frustration. They truly interfere and want to stamp the White House Agenda over every document that is sent to them for review. Truly few realize the impact that they have. They have hired their own scientists and play the ‘my scientist is better than yours’ game. EPA has to accept a lot of **** from them to get any documents out.”

• “Restrain [the] Office of Management and Budget. This Administration has not only watered down important rules protecting public health (I’ve see this happen firsthand with the PM 2.5 implementation rule), they have also altered internal procedures so that scientific findings are accorded less weight. For example, the staff paper used previously in setting the NAAQS review has been eliminated.”

• “OMB and the White House have, in some cases, compromised the integrity of EPA rules and policies; their influence, largely hidden from the public and driven by industry lobbying, has decreased the stringency of proposed regulations for nonscientific, political reasons. Because the real reasons can’t be stated, the regulations contain a scientific rationale with little or no merit.”

• “In this administration, self-censorship is almost as powerful as political censorship. Options that OMB or the White House wouldn’t like aren’t even put forward.”

• “Over the last few years it has come to pass that OMB typically provides nonsensical political edits to every technical guidance coming out. (Not just the ones we hear about in the news, but ALL of them.) This is often done behind closed doors—after the document leaves the control of technical staff, OMB/White House request EPA management to make their requested political changes as EPA technical edits, before officially submitting to OMB for review.”

• “Control the power of OMB to a reasonable level—OMB does more to waste time and taxpayer dollars than any other organization in the government.”

Scientists who reported having personal experience with political interference were more likely to report that their job satisfaction had declined – and, overall, twice as many respondents reported a drop in job satisfaction over the past five years as those who reported an increase (670, or 44%, reported a decline, and 328, or 21% reported an increase).

Having heard so much about political interference over the past few years, I was pleasantly surprised to see that respondents didn’t overwhelmingly say that morale was terrible: 570 scientists said it was excellent, 564 found it fair, and 387 reported it to be poor or extremely poor. There were also fairly high numbers for some other positive statements:

• 1,282 scientists (81 percent) respected the integrity and professionalism of their direct manager or supervisor, while 686 (43 percent) said the same about the EPA’s senior leaders. …

• A clear majority of respondents (984 scientists, or 62 percent) reported that they are “provided with the appropriate time and resources to keep up with advances in my profession, including attending conferences and participation in scientific or professional societies.” However, 466 scientists (29 percent) disagreed or strongly disagreed. …

• Respondents were more likely to agree than disagree that the EPA was acting effectively to clean up environmental problems. A total of 812 scientists (52 percent) agreed that the EPA acts effectively to “clean up and/or mitigate existing pollution or environmental problems,” while 522 scientists (33 percent) disagreed.  …

Behind the terrible headlines about Bush administration distorting or ignoring the science on global warming, mercury emissions, air pollution, and other hazards, there are still many EPA staffers who are committed to carrying out the agency’s mission and able to do their jobs. The current crop of political appointees won’t be around much longer, and we can be hopeful that the next administration will recognize that government scientists should be free to do their jobs without political interference.

UCS has several recommendations to protect scientists’ rights and safeguard against political interference of science, including:

• Protect EPA scientists by improving whistleblower protections and granting inspectors general greater autonomy and immunity
• Make the EPA more transparent by letting the public know about non-agency attendees at EPA meetings, releasing more documents, and publishing summary statements about science-related policy, guidance, and regulation
• Reform media policy to respect scientists’ rights to speak freely on any topic when they clarify that they’re speaking as private citizens
• Reform EPA’s publication policy to streamline excessive review, limit delays, and exempt non-official publications from review
• Ensure EPA independence by making it a cabinet-level agency, and keep OMB from interfering with the agency’s scientific and technical determinations
• Enact legislative reforms to equip EPA to address emerging challenges like climate change and nanotechnology
• Disclose and mitigate conflicts of interest
• Make better use of scientific advisory committees

Although much of the report’s contents is grim, UCS has done a terrific job putting it together, and it’s a valuable resource. (For anyone who wants to learn more about EPA, Chapter Two of the report provides a helpful summary the agency’s history and organization in under 10 pages.) Perhaps we’ll be able to look back at it five years from now and be happy to realize how much things have improved.

Comments

  1. #1 le gray
    May 8, 2008

    I listened to the webcast of the hearings on this issue from congress, very interesting. Will it make a difference?

    What is the status of the new whistleblowers protection act that I had heard Congress was working on?

  2. #2 Liz
    May 9, 2008

    It looks like the House and Senate have passed difference of whistleblower protection legislation and need to reconcile them. Bush has threatened a veto, though, and I don’t know whether there are enough votes to override it.