Science Soviet style! More than half the scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency report political interference in their work over the last five years. This, according to a new investigation by the Union of Concerned Scientists, follows on the heels of prior UCS investigations (Food and Drug Administration, Fish and Wildlife Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, as well as climate scientists at seven federal agencies). The earlier examinations also found significant manipulation of federal science by the Bush administration.
“Our investigation found an agency in crisis,” said UCS’s Francesca Grifo. “Nearly 900 EPA scientists reported political interference in their scientific work. That’s 900 too many. Distorting science to accommodate a narrow political agenda threatens our environment, our health, and our democracy itself.”
Among the UCS report’s top findings on the EPA: 889 scientists (60 percent) said they had personally experienced at least one instance of political interference in their work over the last five years. 394 scientists (31 percent) personally experienced frequent or occasional “statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientists’ findings.” 285 scientists (22 percent) said they frequently or occasionally personally experienced “selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome.” 224 scientists (17 percent) said they had been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document.” Of the 969 agency veterans with more than 10 years of EPA experience, 409 scientists (43 percent) said interference has occurred more often in the past five years than in the previous five-year period. Only 43 scientists (4 percent) said interference occurred less often. Hundreds of scientists reported being unable to openly express concerns about the EPA’s work without fear of retaliation; 492 (31 percent) felt they could not speak candidly within the agency and 382 (24 percent) felt they could not do so outside the agency.
UCS’s investigation revealed political interference is most pronounced in offices where scientists write regulations and conduct risk assessments that could lead to strengthened regulations. “The investigation shows researchers are generally continuing to do their work,” said Dr. Grifo. “But their scientific findings are tossed aside when it comes time to write regulations.” Nearly 100 scientists identified the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as the primary culprit. “Currently, OMB is allowed to force or make changes as they want, and rules are held hostage until this happens,” said a scientist at the agency’s Office of Air and Radiation. “OMB’s power needs to be checked as time after time they weaken rulemakings and policy decisions to favor industry.”
“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 non-scientific, political reasons,” said a scientist from one of the agency’s regional offices. “Because the real reasons can’t be stated, the regulations contain a scientific rationale with little or no merit.” “They [OMB] have inappropriately stopped agency work that has been in progress for years due to their lack of scientific understanding,” said a scientist at the agency’s Office of Research and Development.
The UCS investigation also revealed that EPA scientists cannot freely communicate their findings to the media, public or colleagues (783 respondents, 51 percent, said EPA policies prevent scientists from speaking freely to the news media about their findings). Scientists also shared anecdotes about being barred from presenting their research at conferences and their difficulties clearing research publication articles with EPA managers.
Julia Whitty is Mother Jones’ environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.