Free Speech for Science Advisors? EPA Loosens the Leash

December 3, 2014

Can a scientist on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency advisory committee talk to a science reporter about a hot topic she or he is an expert on? That depends. Probably. Even that much is progress.

Journalists frustrated with muzzling of agency scientists by politically appointed spin-control flaks complained loudly earlier this year when EPA issued a policy muzzling the independent outside scientists who sit on its Science Advisory Board (SAB). EPA exerted control by defining outside scientists as "special government employees," and requiring them to get permission to talk to reporters. The Society of Environmental Journalists joined other journalism and science groups in a written protest of that policy.

Now EPA has issued a "clarification" of that policy, which acknowledges that SAB members are free to talk to reporters — mostly — as long as they are speaking for themselves.

The new policy clarification "makes clear that scientists on EPA committees have the explicit right to respond to any inquiry in their capacity as private citizens," says Michael Halpern, of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. As a program manager at the center, Halpern has for years specialized in combatting political interference with science.

EPA's unsigned "clarification" document cites the agency's Scientific Integrity Policy, which asserts the need for scientific openness (although placing some limits on it). That policy says agency scientists are expected to "Freely exercise their right to express their personal views provided they specify that they are not speaking on behalf of, or as a representative of, the Agency but rather in their private capacity."

That and other agency policies say their purpose is to avoid the politicization of science. Open conversation with scientists by journalists, Congress, and the public remains a contentious issue. Control of access to scientists is the prize in efforts to control the impact of science on EPA regulations, which protect people's health and cost industry money.

"I’m happy to see that the constraints in the initial memorandum were dialed back," Halpern wrote in a UCS blog December 1, 2014.

But Halpern also noted that some journalists might be concerned that the clarification did not go far enough — since it leaves the original "don't talk" policy memo, issued April 4, 2014, on the books. Moreover, the clarification restricts scientists from speaking about SAB discussions during the "deliberative phase" before it comes up with a group position.

Late Wednesday, the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), one of the groups that had originally complained to EPA, released a letter it wrote EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy December 1 declaring their dissatisfaction with the clarification. SPJ especially objected to speech restrictions during the deliberative phase of SAB proceedings.

"The deliberative phase is the most important time in recommendation development," wrote SPJ President David Cuillier. "Under the policy, the public may be blocked from information for months." In an accompanying release, SPJ said EPA's clarification only "reaffirmed in great part its policy released earlier this year restricting the communications of independent scientists."

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