Battle Builds Over Science Integrity in Environmental Policy

December 5, 2017

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Backgrounder: Battle Builds Over Science Integrity in Environmental Policy

By Joseph A. Davis

This special Backgrounder is one in a series of special reports from SEJournal’s Joseph A. Davis that looks ahead to key issues in the coming year. Stay tuned for more in coming weeks and for the full “Journalists’ Guide to Energy & Environment 2018” special report in late January.

Science matters a lot to people’s environmental health.

It matters because people’s health and the future well-being of the planet depend on the findings of science.  Does a herbicide like glyphosate cause cancer? Do neonicotinoid pesticides harm bees? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency makes (or doesn’t make) big regulatory decisions based on such science questions.

But it is important for journalists to understand that rich and powerful industry lobby groups are organized to spin the science, not for the public good, but for their own profits. That spin has gone on for decades (remember Rachel Carson and her “Silent Spring”?)

With the advent of President Donald Trump to the White House, the war has been escalating beyond what anyone has seen.  So expect the year 2018 to see more of that ongoing battle for the integrity of the environmental sciences in the United States. And be aware that so far, science seems to be losing.

That’s partly because covering science is hard enough for trained science reporters working for dedicated science news media. But for general-audience and non-specialist media, delivering truth will be extra hard this year.

If you are feeling clueless, here’s one tip: Questions are healthy — both for science and for journalism. A few to ask: How do you know that? What is the evidence? Who agrees or disagrees? How big a sample? How many studies? Who published them? Are they peer-reviewed? Are they statistically significant? What are the margins of error?

But to help you get ready for your coverage in the upcoming year, Backgrounder has put together this briefing on five likely battles ahead for 2018:

1. Science Advisory Committees’ Credibility at Stake

2. Research Budgets at Many Agencies Marked for Cuts

3. White House Science Office a “Ghost Town”

4.  Nominations: When Politics Trump Science

5. Ethics Conflicts to Mark 2018

 

1. Science Advisory Committees’ Credibility at Stake

EPA has over many years evolved a structure of science advisory committees and subcommittees to help evaluate the science findings on which its regulations depend. Some of them are established by law, and a combination of law, regulations and policy govern how they operate.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, shown above at a Feb. 25, 2017 event, raised integrity concerns when he took measures to purge members from EPA science panels.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, shown above at a Feb. 25, 2017 event, raised integrity concerns when he took measures to purge members from EPA science panels. Photo: Gage Skidmore, Flickr Creative Commons

Other environment and energy agencies have similar science panels to guide them.

At EPA, there are some 22 science panels. Four main rubrics include the Science Advisory Board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the Advisory Council on Clean Air Compliance Analysis and the Board of Scientific Counselors.  The overall number of panels goes up when these bodies form committees and subcommittees.

Most of the committees are administered by the SAB Staff Office. Many of the panels are subject to the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which mandates open information.

Virtually all of the panel members are appointed by the EPA administrator. The scientists on these panels have special status different from that of an ordinary government employee — as they usually have other jobs in places such as universities. They may be paid for their time as “special government employees.” Most members are supposed to disclose any conflicts of interest.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt raised integrity concerns in 2017 when he took several measures to purge dozens of existing members from these panels and began appointing new members more sympathetic to industry and GOP states.

In one set of moves, he declined to reappoint waves of panel members whose terms were expiring. In a later move, Pruitt issued an unprecedented decree that panel members would no longer be allowed to serve if they received any research grant money from EPA.

Pruitt’s ostensible justification for the grants-related purge was that it would make the panels more “independent” of EPA. This did not pass the laugh test, since Pruitt seemed to have no objection to subsequently appointing scientists employed by companies EPA regulates — a much more blatant conflict of interest.

It was not entirely lost on the news media that Pruitt was purging and packing the science panels to make them more subservient to regulated industries like oil and chemicals. Accounts of the move, and its meaning, have run in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Vanity Fair,  Common Dreams and the Huffington Post.

Pruitt paralyzed the existing, independent EPA science panels by removing so many members they could not meet. But the new, GOP- and industry-friendly panels will be meeting in 2018. Watch that space.

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2. Research Budgets at Many Agencies Marked for Cuts

As fiscal 2018 agency budget proposals began to emerge from the Trump White House (not necessarily the agencies themselves), it was clear that many kinds of science faced drastic budget cuts. Many of the worst cuts were in agencies dealing with environment, energy and natural resources.

A small ray of hope may yet shine in 2018 if Congress appropriates more for environmental research than Trump actually asked for. This has already begun to happen during “early” action on appropriations. The problem is that chronic chaos and lateness on appropriations (a bipartisan thing) may end up putting the money in a stop-gap omnibus “continuing resolution” where issues are murky.

 

The Trump administration entered

the White House talking about eliminating

most NASA and NOAA climate research

 

Environmental research performed or funded by EPA is not really all that costly — in 2017 the “science and technology” spending was $733 million and Trump proposed cutting that to $451 million. But the House, after battering the appropriation bill with amendments, finally passed it with something like $629 million — repudiating the deeper Trump cuts. The Senate committee bill currently puts the number at $661 million.

The final number will remain unclear until Congress finally gets its act together sometime (probably early) in 2018.

The EPA’s research budget is modest compared to those of other agencies studying environmental issues. These include the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the main agencies studying climate, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which flies the satellites producing much of NOAA’s raw data.

It is hard to say just what fraction of these budgets relates purely to climate or the environment. The Trump administration entered the White House talking about eliminating most NASA and NOAA climate research, but the cuts will not end up being nearly that draconian.

Remember environmental science is also explored by the U.S. Geological Survey and the Fish & Wildlife Service at Interior. Or by the Agricultural Research Service at the Agriculture Department. Or at the vast archipelago of national labs run by the Energy Department. Or by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences under the National Institutes of Health. Still more environmental research is funded under the National Science Foundation.

The environmental component of these budgets is hard to track, especially because they fall under other appropriations bills. But the general trends will probably follow the trajectory of EPA — cuts that are not as drastic as originally threatened. The outcome will be known in 2018.

One reason for this is not hard to see. Federal research programs and facilities are scattered broadly and evenly across the many states — in various labs and institutes and universities. The nature of distributive politics (we won’t call it science pork) is a mandate for everybody to get a share if everybody votes for the bill.

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3. White House Science Office a “Ghost Town”

So who needs science, right? Apparently not the Trump White House.

It may seem geeky, but the Trump administration has gone longer than any modern White House without a science advisor — and it has essentially hollowed out the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the organizational unit for the science advisor.

“The science office, which takes up half of the fourth floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, has a fleet of empty desks,” according to a late November CBS piece.

The year 2018 will tell whether this is deliberate or just a late start. These are hardly the only vacancies the administration has yet to fill.

But it could be a sign that the administration really doesn’t want much advice from science.

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4.  Nominations: When Politics Trump Science

Much of the science-corruption story that is likely coming will be written in 2018. And much of that may center on executive branch appointments that have not yet been finalized.

Sam Clovis, at a Trump campaign rally in January 2016, was an Iowa talk show host before being nominated as top science official at the Agriculture Department. He later withdrew his nomination after being implicated in the Trump-Russia scandal.
Sam Clovis, at a Trump campaign rally in January 2016, was an Iowa talk show host before being nominated as top science official at the Agriculture Department. He later withdrew his nomination after being implicated in the Trump-Russia scandal. Photo: Alex Hanson, Flickr Creative Commons

Corruption of science at the expense of public health has already emerged as a story.

For example, EPA boss Pruitt overruled EPA scientists and rejected a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos back in March 2018 — after its manufacturer, Dow, gave a million dollars to the Trump inauguration. Dow had specifically asked EPA “to set aside” the findings of its scientists. Then the EPA press office blasted the Associated Press for reporting the fact.

Another example was Trump’s nomination of Sam Clovis to be top science official at the Agriculture Department. He had no science background at all. He was an Iowa talk show host who supported Trump early and became a national co-chair of Trump’s 2016 campaign. He finally withdrew his name from nomination — not because he wasn’t qualified to run a science office, but because he had been implicated in the Trump-Russia scandal.

Yet another was the nomination of Barry Myers to head NOAA. Myers has been CEO of Accuweather, a commercial service that feeds off of NOAA data for profit. Accuweather has pushed legislation to take NOAA’s National Weather Service out of the forecasting business, leaving the field to private companies — and essentially subsidizing them. Critics such as the Union of Concerned Scientists have called his nomination a big, baked-in conflict of interest.

The situation seems likely to become worse once second-tier leaders (or assistant administrators) are confirmed and seated at EPA. Some of these were still being mulled over as 2017 neared an end.

Case in point: Trump nominated Michael Dourson to be assistant administrator heading EPA’s office regulating toxic chemicals. Dourson, a scientist, “has spent much of his career helping businesses fight restrictions on the use of potentially toxic compounds in consumer goods,” the New York Times reported. Critics say Dourson would have massive conflicts of interest as a chemical regulator.

While Dourson’s nomination squeaked through the Senate Environment Committee in October on a party-line vote, his nomination was stalled short of the floor by apparent lack of votes. No matter. Trump installed him as a political appointee, and he is already doing the job.

There may yet be others. Bill Wehrum, the now-confirmed nominee to head EPA’s Air Office, has a background as an oil and utility lobbyist.  Kathleen Hartnett White, nominated by Trump to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality, stumbled on basic science during hearings before the Senate Environment Committee, which confirmed her anyway.

And as of December, Trump had yet to nominate anyone to head EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

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5. Ethics Conflicts to Mark 2018

Deep conflicts over the integrity of science seem to be likely on the environmental beat in 2018, but clear resolutions do not.

Science conflicts will probably mark many of the Trump EPA’s deregulatory efforts, such as the rollback of the Clean Power Plan, as well as the spate of court cases which have already started. Settling these can take years.

One mechanism set in place during the Obama administration is the mandate for every agency to have a scientific integrity policy and an office to enforce it. EPA has one. Yet power dynamics are such that EPA’s scientific integrity office may not be able to solve the biggest conflicts.

One early sign: A panel convened by EPA’s scientific integrity office cleared Administrator Pruitt in August of violating the policy by denying man-made climate change.

 

For journalists, the master key

to these ethics issues is disclosure.

 

One part of the integrity policy protects scientists’ rights to express diverse opinions. Journalists should nonetheless keep an eye out for complaints to the scientific integrity office in 2018.

A possible arena for journalists will be efforts to report on conflict-of-interest waivers for officials at EPA and other agencies. EPA policy (download) — and federal law — prohibits agency employees from having conflicts of interest. EPA science advisory panel members have their own rules.

The Trump White House issued an “ethics” policy ostensibly aimed at draining the swamp by keeping agency officials from lobbying after they leave government. Fortunately for their clients, it did not as harshly restrict lobbyists from taking office and regulating former clients.

In practice, the Trump administration has dealt with many conflicts of interest by issuing ethics waivers. Some of these have been disclosed. The net effect, though, is that energy lobbyists are now working for the government.

For journalists, the master key to these ethics issues is disclosure. Whatever the ethics rules, conflicts must be disclosed for the public to judge science integrity. Most rules require disclosure. But whenever conflict information is withheld under claims of confidentiality, that will be a red flag.

Another item sure to make news on the environmental “science” front will be Pruitt’s vaunted “Red Team/Blue Team” science cage fight. The idea is to take established science about which there is almost no disagreement (that human emissions cause global warming) and create the illusion of scientific disagreement with ritual drama.

Climate deniers loved the idea. Actual climate scientists did not. Pruitt’s mere threat of airing this “alternative reality” show cast a frisson of delicious anticipation over the second half of 2017. Pruitt teased the show (subscription required) again at the end of November — without actually setting a date for it.

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Joseph A. Davis is director of SEJ’s WatchDog Project, and writes SEJournal Online’s Backgrounders and TipSheet columns.


* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 2, No. 46. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main pageSubscribe to the e-newsletter here.  And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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