|In response to criticism of the EPA, Administrator Michael Regan has laid out initial details for the agency's science integrity reform effort. Above, at right, Regan at a research lab at NC State University in October 2021. Photo: @EPAMichaelRegan. Click to enlarge.|
WatchDog Opinion: Science Integrity Is About More Than Getting EPA Interviews
By Joseph A. Davis
It is time to shift gears in the government’s quest for scientific integrity. Environmental journalists should be among the first to realize this — and to shift gears ourselves. Many of us have been trying to illuminate the COP26 climate talks, but even as we see a grave emergency, we have floundered in a sea of “blah blah blah.”
There is an acute, ongoing and worsening scientific integrity crisis. Red lights are blinking. To date, journalism groups have focused on the narrow part of this crisis that affects them the most: journalists’ freedom of access to government scientists. This is the area where journalists dedicated to truth, fairness and objectivity feel on the solidest ground. Most would agree the First Amendment guarantees reporters’ access to open information.
There was evidence of that (once again) in the July 26 letter from 25 major journalism groups to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy on the latest rewrite of the government’s scientific integrity policy. The Society of Environmental Journalists was prominent among them.
SEJ and other groups have been complaining for years that journalists should be allowed to interview government scientists without interference and censorship by agency press offices. It’s an old story, and it has been chronicled in the WatchDog for many years.
The problem today is different:
an assault on, corruption of, and
betrayal of the science itself.
The problem today is different: an assault on, corruption of, and betrayal of the science itself. We are seeing more clearly how government science is co-opted by self-interested industry lobbying. How some politicians and agency officials encourage and enable this corruption. And how some news media (and a wider mediasphere) actually play a major role in corrupting and distorting the science. There is today an “anti-science” movement, and it is getting stronger even as media puzzle over it.
How else could the current resistance to COVID-19 vaccination exist? It’s not just that people don’t want the shot — it’s that people, politicians and media like Fox deny the scientific truth that it is safe and effective.
Likewise, the ever-more-solid science of climate change. Climate denialism is an old story — one too long to tell here. But we would not be telling the whole truth if we omitted the fact that some media have worked hard to promote climate denial, and that a big portion of the Republican party has embraced and promoted climate denial. There is even an emerging set of researchers chronicling climate misinformation.
New, dangerous ingredients in the mix
Reporters getting interviews is imperative — but it won’t fix this problem.
Today, there are major new ingredients in the mix. False-front anti-science groups. Social media. Right-wing cable. Advertorials. Sponsored content. Ad studios. Industry scientists. Stacked science committees. Slick advertising. Propaganda publications. War rooms. Crisis management. Astroturf. PR in many forms. The monopoly formerly known as Facebook. Even some of the science journals are under a cloud.
Sometimes, too often, the truth-destroyers are running the show. We could have seen this coming as early as 2003, when James Inhofe, R-Okla., became chairman of the Senate Environment Committee. He was the one who “disproved” climate change with a snowball. His press guy back then was Marc Morano, who went on to found a major climate-denial publication, Climate Depot.
Some journalists never figured out how to cover this (a hardcore denier in charge of climate policy). In journalism school, they often teach lofty professional standards, but they don’t always teach fully the story of U.S. tabloid and yellow journalism. But it’s still there. The National Enquirer had a weekly circulation of one million in 1966 (less now). At many of these outlets, truth is a boring and inconvenient obstacle to be overcome.
The problem is more than the muzzled scientist not allowed to talk to a reporter.
The iron grip of chemical industries
Recently we have begun learning how broad and deep the corruption of science has been, at the EPA especially. Intercept reporter Sharon Lerner has been writing about it for more than a year.
One of her most recent stories exemplifies how huge the problem is — it was headlined: “EPA Withheld Reports of Substantial Risk Posed by 1,240 Chemicals.” In more than two dozen stories over the past year, Lerner has laid out and documented the iron grip of chemical industries on the agency that regulates chemicals and is supposed to keep the public safe.
If you know the story of how the Trump administration overruled its own scientists to deregulate the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which harms kids’ brains, after its manufacturer gave Trump a million-dollar donation, you will not be surprised. Trump’s EPA press office attacked the Associated Press for reporting these facts.
But if you think the problem only happened under Trump, you’d be wrong. Lerner’s series makes clear that industry suppression of EPA science was going on both before and after the former president.
One big source of the problem is that
the EPA (as well as other agencies)
often relies on industry science to start with.
One big source of the problem is that the EPA (as well as other agencies) often relies on industry science to start with. This has long been true with pesticides; to get a product registered, a company must conduct and submit health and environmental studies. The EPA’s role is mostly to vet and ultimately bless them — if it even does that.
The system evolved for several reasons over many decades. First, it’s much less expensive for the government. The second, though, is that it gives the chemical industry the ability to spin the science in its own favor.
This general practice happens in many other areas, at the EPA and other agencies. One that Lerner and others have focused on is the EPA’s assessment of new chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act. When Congress passed a long-awaited reform of TSCA in 2016, even environmentalists were hopeful. Finally, it seemed, new chemicals would be evaluated for safety before they were allowed on the market.
But, as Lerner has documented, the EPA has fallen down on the job. Despite hopes that under the revised TSCA the safety reports would finally be taken seriously, the opposite happened under Trump. The EPA not only stopped giving the public access to these “8(e) reports,” but actually stopped even letting most EPA employees see them.
The integrity problems Lerner documents go far beyond pesticides and new chemical assessments. She shows similar problems in the EPA’s public meetings on ethylene oxide (a carcinogen), in which the EPA presents “both sides” to balance its own findings with those of industry.
Yet another tactic for keeping scientific information away from the public and journalists is the “trade secrets” dodge. Sometimes it is known as “proprietary information” or “confidential business information.” Many environmental laws that seem to mandate disclosure have an exemption for trade secrets. The problem is that once CBI is claimed by a company, the information is automatically sequestered.
There isn’t always a test of whether the claim of CBI is valid. And when a justification of a CBI claim is required, there is often a huge backlog that keeps the information sequestered indefinitely. In the few cases where journalists can get a peek at CBI, they often have to sign nondisclosure agreements — which make it journalistically useless.
In search of promising signs
This early in the Biden administration, there is still hope of reducing agency secrecy. There are in fact still some scientists and other employees at the EPA trying to reestablish scientific integrity.
But there is much evidence of an engrained culture at the EPA threatening integrity as well — even after the switch from Trump to Biden. Whistleblowers working with the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility paint a dire picture of chemical health assessment information being doctored, suppressed and even destroyed (more here).
In response to criticism of the EPA, Administrator Michael Regan has set in motion some reforms that could make a difference. A survey of agency scientists in 2021 panned the state of scientific integrity thanks to political interference, fear and retaliation, although some of that may have been a Trump hangover.
In October, the EPA laid out the beginnings of its integrity cleanup effort, which includes two new watchdog panels. But outside groups like PEER remain skeptical. It would be a promising sign if the EPA were to disapprove even a few new chemicals for commercial use.
Environmental journalists owe it to their audience to keep a watchful eye on this tangle.
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, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 6, No. 41. 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.