Government scientific information: Culture of secrecy is still a problem


Did President Obama’s Transparency and Open Government memorandum, issued at the beginning of his term, have a significant impact?  At a September 25 symposium in Washington, DC, on “Improving Citizen Access to Government Scientific Information,” watchdog speakers suggested that federal scientists may still be under strict scrutiny by public information officers when speaking with the public or press, and there are still lengthy delays in responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.  Comments by Administration federal agency officials on communication by scientists with reporters and the public suggested some of the tensions within government that exist regardless of who wins an election.

Lack of government openness and transparency and impediments to the flow of scientific information were problems during the Bush Administration that President Obama inherited when he took office in 2009.  The Ashcroft Memorandum, issued in 2001 under the Bush administration, directed agencies to err on the side of secrecy when it came to disclosing government documents, information, and data.  On his first day in office, President Obama issued a Transparency and Open Government Memorandum to the heads of Executive Branch departments and agencies.  The new policy was ostensibly intended to change the culture of secrecy around government information.  The new marching orders were seen as a step in the right direction toward more open and transparent government, one with less stringent barriers to obtaining government information.  Did the new policy have a significant impact?

Climate Science Watch attended a symposium September 25 on Improving Citizen Access to Government Scientific Information, hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists at the Newseum in Washington, DC.  With a wide range of speakers, including journalists, nonprofit watchdogs, representatives of federal agencies, and current and former members of Congress, a range of viewpoints was conveyed.

The first panel included several journalists and advocates for greater transparency.  These individuals deal first-hand with the federal government and agencies in the constant battle for information freedom.  This panel made the case that significant problems remain in improving transparency and making science information accessible.

According to Curtis Brainard, staff writer for the Columbia Journalism Review, federal scientists are still under strict scrutiny by public information officers when speaking with the public or press.  Brainard also noted lengthy delays in responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and an archaic system for filing FOIA requests that is in need of updating.

Citing a survey of journalists by the Columbia Journalism Review, Brainard said the Obama Administration has made “marginal improvements” in making scientific information accessible when compared with its predecessors, but has not yet lived up to the promise of transparency.  The survey revealed that reporters still face unresponsive agency public information offices, intrusive monitoring of interviews with government scientists, and long delays in the processing of requests under the Freedom of Information Act.

Angela Canterbury, Director of Public Policy for the Project of Government Oversight (POGO), added that when data is provided it is sometimes incorrect or incomplete.  Many agencies have become overwhelmed by FOIA requests and cannot respond in a timely manner. To fix the problem many of the old systems must be overhauled, and this involves personnel and costs that must compete in a difficult budget environment.

The second panel in the discussion included several high-ranking officials from agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), EPA, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), and the National Archives.

Inez Tenenbaum, chair of CPSC and Robert Detrick, the head of NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, defended the level of transparency within their agencies.   Scientists are encouraged to speak on research and issues they are concerned with, but must state that their own opinions do not officially represent the position of their agency.  Gina McCarthy, assistant administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, gave a more problematic response when asked during the question-and-answer period about restrictions on media and public communication by agency scientists.  McCarthy said:

“EPA has a policy of open transparency.  I think that EPA has done the best job it can to give the scientists a platform to speak the truth and develop the data.  There is no question that EPA carefully manages EPA’s business, which means that not everybody has the credibility within the agency to speak to everything going on in the agency.

“Some of the difficulties EPA has had recently is that we have people who aren’t scientists who work for EPA who decide to speak for the scientists. So it’s never easy to work in a large agency that has many scientists. …

The panel moderator, Francesca Grifo, who has led the UCS Scientific Integrity program, stayed on the case with a follow-up:  So what should a reporter do? Is there a place where the buck stops?  That if they try to get to a scientist and they can’t, what do they do about that?

Gina McCarthy, EPA:  We work through our communications shop and identify the right person to answer the right questions – the folks with the scientific and technical background. … Human beings remain human beings – just because they’re government employees, it doesn’t change that.  We’re all advocates of what we believe in, and we all look at data that is our own personal way of relating to the world.  But it is the job of the agency to make sure that our personalities don’t get in the way of really discussing the science in a way that maintains the agency’s credibility.  That’s the balance we try to bring to it, to just make sure we’re providing factual information, not a layer of assessment that is based on someone’s personal interest or advocacy.

Robert Detrick, NOAA:  But Gina, that’s a challenge that we have. If you go back into NOAA seven, eight years ago, I think it was your guys [Union of Concerned Scientists] who did the questionnaire – and out of that, with NOAA scientists, they found that there was a feeling that they were not allowed to speak their mind – that they were, in essence, being stymied in terms of providing information that they believed was appropriate.  So I will tell you, coming into government five years [ago] after spending the rest of my career in industry and academia: there are no more passionate scientists that I have ever met than the folks I work with at NOAA.  And every one of those is there because they are concerned about our resources, the public’s resources.  So it’s really important to have that leadership layer come in and say, “Yes indeed, you can express yourselves and we’re not going to put a gag in your mouth” – within the confines that each agency needs to do the work that it needs to do.

Grifo:  We get a lot of calls from those reporters when they get stymied.  I think it would be incredibly useful for there to be a place, that isn’t public affairs, where that buck could stop, when that happens. … Right now it’s like, who do we call?

Grifo also asked panelists about what she called “the other elephant in the room” — the role of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as what one questioner called a “politically connected and secret kill switch for federal Executive Branch disclosure policies and initiatives.”  (We discussed this problem last year in a four-part series:  On the White House Scientific Integrity guidelines – Part 1: OMB’s Secret ‘Openness’ Policy)

Each panelist had a different perspective on OMB.  Tenenbaum said that OMB has never interfered with her agency and its disclosure and transparency policies.  She noted that this is mostly due to CPSC being an independent federal agency.   Miriam Nisbet, director of the Office of Government Information Services at the National Archives and Records Administration, understands why OMB had the reputation as a “kill switch” because the interagency review is so scrutinizing and tough, but reiterated that the office and to some extent Department of Justice (DOJ) are responsible for carrying out the “President’s directives not only on openness, but on transparency, Freedom of Information Act, and scientific integrity.”

McCarthy spoke on what for EPA is a familiar subject, with the agency having substantial interaction with OMB due to the large number of rules and findings the EPA has issued in that time:

“… I will tell you there have always been questions raised about OMB because they ask very tough questions.  It’s not an easy process to get through, the interagency review process, but frankly I don’t know how else one would do it.  In a government you need to have those viewpoints expressed … you need to look beyond your own mission to understand the implications of the work that you do.  And it has made us and compelled us to be better and better.  I have been at numerous hearings in front of congressional panels, subcommittees and full committees, and I feel confident about being able to talk about rules that we have done because I have been heavily scrutinized and I have already been asked those questions.  In my opinion, under this administration that has been a tenet of good government.”

That is putting it diplomatically, as is to be expected.  An Administration political appointee is not the one to speak candidly about the complex and at times difficult relationship between EPA and OMB, including instances of when OMB has acted politically to prevent EPA from doing its job under its statutory authority and responsibility.  (We discussed one significant example of this in “Smog Rules” — Obama, scientific integrity, and environmental policy.)

OMB not only controls agency budgets, it also exercises authority given to it by successive presidents to approve, disapprove and shape proposed new federal regulations, including science-based regulations, and has extensive authority over federal collection and dissemination of information.  OMB, while not having appreciable in-house scientific expertise, in effect exercises considerable authority over the use of science in policymaking.

Many examples could be given of how OMB manipulates outcomes without transparency, i.e., the “politically connected secret ‘kill switch.’”  Here’s an example:  In September 2011, the White House rejected a proposed (EPA) rule under the Clean Air Act that would have set a science-based health standard requiring substantial reductions in emissions of smog-causing pollutants.  The new rule, following the recommendations of EPA science advisers, would have strengthened a weaker standard set at the end of the Bush administration. Ground-level ozone pollution, or smog, can cause lung damage, breathing difficulties, and heart problems.  The EPA’s own analysis had found that the health benefits of the proposed new standard would outweigh industry’s regulatory compliance costs. EPA administrator Lisa Jackson had made pushing through a tough new clean air standard for ozone one of the key initiatives of her tenure.  That initiative was put on hold, to face an uncertain fate after the election.

Notwithstanding the Clean Air Act requirement that the EPA set a health and science-based standard, with economic costs to be considered only at the stage of state-level implementation plans, the White House decision to direct the EPA to pull down its smog rule did not pretend to be based on science. In fact, it flew in the face of the scientific evidence on the health effects of ozone pollution.  Rather, the White House gave in to industry pressure.

The Wall Street Journal reported that OMB regulatory czar Cass Sunstein and White House Chief of Staff William Daley had teamed up to kill the smog rule.  A record of meetings on the OMB website reveals that, on August 16, 2011, Sunstein, Daley and other White House officials met with representatives of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Chemistry Council, the National Petrochemical and Refiners Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the National Association of Manufacturers, the American Forest and Paper Association and the Business Roundtable to discuss reconsideration of the ozone air quality standard – just 17 days before Obama rejected the new rule.

EPA was clearly outgunned in this company.  It is caught between the influence of corporate regulated interests on the White House and the relentless attacks on the agency by members of Congress who front for corporate power.  The agency has been, on the whole, a bright light during the Obama Administration.  Its sensitivities about message control are understandable.  Federal managers take their cues from the political level.

Political power is maintained through control of information – including information that should be available to the public.  No matter who wins the election, we need open government advocates and watchdogs to help make visible things the White House and the agencies would find it more politically convenient to withhold.

On the EPA Scientific Integrity Policy and public communication by scientists:

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Scientific Integrity Policy

Climate Science Watch review comments on draft EPA Scientific Integrity Policy

UCS comments on draft EPA Scientific Integrity Policy

UCS line-by-line review of draft EPA Scientific Integrity Policy

Public Employees for Environment Responsibility:  EPA Posts Pathetically Weak Scientific Integrity Proposal — No Rules to Ban Political Manipulation or Secure Transparency or Right to Publish

Earlier CSW posts:

Dangers of inadequate citizen access to government scientific information

On the White House Scientific Integrity guidelines – Part 1: OMB’s Secret ‘Openness’ Policy (first of a four-part series)

NOAA on the BP oil blowout: Is this any way to communicate science?

What to do when the White House sets science aside?

“Smog Rules” — Obama, scientific integrity, and environmental policy

And classics from the Bush-Cheney period:

New Union of Concerned Scientists study of media policies finds some federal agencies stifle scientists’ contact with reporters (October 2008)

GAP and UCS call on Commerce Dept. to suspend new restrictive media policy (April 2007)

Union of Concerned Scientists study: Hundreds of EPA scientists report political interference (April 2008)

Government Accountability Project issues in-depth report on political interference at climate science research agencies

Full text of GAP report:  Redacting the Science of Climate Change:  An Investigative and Synthesis Report (March 2007)

Investigation Documents Political Interference with Climate Science Communication (January 2007, Report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Government Accountability Project )

Full text of UCS and GAP report:  Atmosphere of Pressure: Political Interference in Federal Climate Science (February 2007)

Notes on Conrad Lautenbacher’s troubled legacy on science and politics at NOAA (Part 2)


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