|A researcher filters coastal water samples in a laboratory aboard a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency research ship. Agency policy prevents scientists from talking to reporters without press office permission. Photo: EPA/Eric Vance. Click to enlarge.|
WatchDog Opinion: EPA Scientific Integrity Policy — Good Journalism and Good Science Need Lots of Light
By Joseph A. Davis
Science at the Trump Environmental Protection Agency was dragged into a dark alley and mugged. Repeatedly. For years. Now efforts to buff up EPA’s scientific integrity policy may reflect stronger protections for science. But will the news media be able to tell the public?
Trump appointees stacked science advisory committees at the EPA, issued a “secret science” rule (may require subscription), ignored scientific advice in order to roll back environmental health regulations and — importantly — often kept agency scientists from talking to journalists.
Incoming Administrator Michael Regan has declared “Science is back at EPA.” And he has already taken several important actions to reinstate it. He has gotten a court to throw out the “secret science” rule. He has purged science advisory panels of industry partisans. And he has mandated, per a White House order, an overhaul of the agency’s scientific integrity policy.
That’s the policy that says scientists can’t talk to reporters without press office permission and that requires press office “minders” at interviews. Turning on the lights in the dark alley would require getting rid of those requirements.
Giving substance to the rhetoric
The Society of Environmental Journalists, working through its Freedom of Information Task Force, has opposed such restrictions on scientists’ ability to talk. SEJ has actually been complaining about journalists’ access at EPA for a long time — before even the Obama administration.
Restoring the integrity of science at EPA
requires a policy that its scientists are
free to talk to journalists if they choose to.
Many reporters WatchDog knows will testify that EPA scientists are often afraid to talk to them without press office permission. EPA has no written press policy — so the science integrity policy is the closest thing that could apply. The policy needs to state clearly that EPA scientists (like all EPA staff) are free to talk to journalists if they choose to.
Restoring the integrity of science at EPA requires this — giving substance to the rhetoric about transparency and openness.
Why? Because political appointees at EPA in the past have shown a keen ability to ignore or overrule science in order to get the regulatory results that they — or their regulated industry clients — prefer.
Let’s look at some examples.
- Chlorpyrifos: EPA as early as 2017 decided to throw out the advice of its own scientists about the toxicity of this pesticide. Its maker, Dow Chemical, had given a million-dollar donation to Trump and was urging EPA not to prohibit it.
- Particulates: An independent EPA science panel concluded that current standards for fine particulate air pollution were inadequate to protect public health. Yet in December 2020, the Trump EPA declined to tighten air quality standards for fine particulates.
- Ethylene Oxide: When an EPA staff investigation found significant levels of this carcinogen around an Illinois sterilizing plant in August 2018, higher-up political appointees ordered the information be removed from the web (so we learn from EPA’s inspector general).
- WOTUS Rule: The Trump EPA issued a rule in January 2020 narrowing the scope of “waters of the U.S.” that EPA could regulate under the Clean Water Act. But one of EPA’s own Trump-appointed science panels concluded that parts of that rule were in conflict with established science.
- Auto Emissions Rollback: The Trump EPA in March 2020 finalized its contentious rollback (may require subscription) of Obama-era auto mileage standards meant to address climate change. Yet a just-issued report from the agency’s inspector general says that the decision ignored advice from the agency’s own technical staff.
- Mercury and Air Toxics Standards: The Trump EPA, at the urging of the White House, in May 2020 wrote a loophole into the Obama-era Clean Air Act rule, which had limited toxic heavy metal emissions from sources like power plants. An EPA science panel later found that this did not square with the evidence.
- Smog Rule: The Trump EPA in December 2020 announced that it would not tighten the air quality standard for smog (ozone). Environmental groups and states claimed the decision ignored science favoring a tighter standard — and promptly sued EPA over it.
Political appointees, not scientists, are problem
These examples help show why scientists’ freedom to communicate matters. It’s not just about the power of the press office. And it’s not about journalists wanting to feel important. It’s about public health and the government’s legal duty to protect it.
And it’s also about — WatchDog is not too polite to say this — the capture of EPA by the industries it’s supposed to regulate, and the actual corruption of government by monied interests.
It’s not the integrity of the scientists
that is the problem. The problem is the
political appointees who are their bosses.
Really, it’s not the integrity of the scientists that is the problem. The problem is the political appointees who are their bosses.
WatchDog concedes that Biden has put in some fine public affairs leaders at EPA. But ultimately, they must be loyal to policies set by the White House and other political appointees. Yet a lot of EPA’s scientific integrity policy (as at many other agencies) is written as if the scientists are the ones to worry about.
Another reason to ditch the “minders” is intimidation. Let’s face it. Journalists often get explosive information from sources (including scientists) when they can go off the record or on background. The source may fear retaliation — rightly so, it turns out in many cases.
An unchaperoned interview, with trust, may allow scientists or other interviewees to hint at scandals that a journalist can go on to verify by documents or other means. Leaks make news, and they won’t happen if PIOs are watching.
Press policy is contradictory
Scientists and journalists share some important values. Truth is one of them. Journalists and scientists both seek to gather evidence that will reveal to the public what the truth actually is. Transparency is another of those values — telling what we know, the whole truth.
There may well be more truth coming.
Administrator Regan has reportedly ordered “a public accounting of the Trump administration’s political interference in science, drawing up a list of dozens of regulatory decisions that may have been warped by political interference in objective research,” according to a piece by Lisa Friedman (may require subscription) for The New York Times. Stephen Lee reports for Bloomberg that the inquiry will be conducted by the EPA inspector general’s office.
When corrupt politics is suppressing science, there is sometimes a stout “resistance” (may require subscription) among agency scientists, who may want to get the truth out anyway. Marianne Lavelle at Inside Climate News has written about this underground effort to preserve truth. She fully understands, in her piece, that the Trump administration was working to destroy and discredit science and the scientific method itself.
The proponents of EPA’s minders-and-permissions press policy see no problem with it. Yet the policy itself, which nominally espouses “timely and unfiltered dissemination of its scientific information — uncompromised by political or other interference,” contains this deep self-contradiction. It’s the inability to acknowledge the distinction between openness and the dark alley.
[Editor’s Note: For more on this topic, also see the recent “WatchDog Opinion: EPA Science Integrity Overhaul a Chance To Get Media Access Right.”]
Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, as well as compiling SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column and WatchDog Alert.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 17. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.