A good new scientific integrity official at EPA


Congratulations to EPA on appointing Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists as the agency’s new scientific integrity official. Hopefully Dr. Grifo will be able to bring about some changes as appropriate on matters of concern that she is well-aware of.

From the UCS news release:

UCS Scientist Takes Top Scientific Integrity Post at U.S. EPA

Dr. Francesca Grifo Previously Led UCS’s Scientific Integrity Efforts

WASHINGTON (Nov. 25, 2013)—Francesca Grifo, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), has joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as its new scientific integrity official, the agency announced today.

“Dr. Grifo has been in the vanguard of scientific integrity reform,” said Kathleen Rest, UCS’ executive director. “This position offers a huge opportunity to help one of our largest science agencies stay ahead of the curve on this issue. Science plays such a critical role in protecting public health and the environment, and there are few who appreciate that as much as Dr. Grifo.”

According to a UCS analysis Grifo led, the EPA has one of the strongest scientific integrity policies among federal agencies and departments. Such policies, when fully implemented, can help scientists speak freely and ensure transparency in how science is used to inform policymaking. Policies are particularly important at agencies such as EPA, which face significant scrutiny and political pressure. …

“We’ve come a long way on scientific integrity, but we still hear from federal scientists who face barriers in communicating their research and analysis,” said UCS’ Michael Halpern, who worked with Dr. Grifo for more than eight years on scientific integrity issues. “I expect Dr. Grifo to continue to be a driving force in protecting federal scientists from inappropriate interference in their work, not just at EPA but at other agencies that can benefit from its leadership.” …

EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy

Francesca T. Grifo, Union of Concerned Scientists, Federal Agency Scientific Integrity Policies: A Comparative Analysis (March 2013)

Some of the issues pertaining to EPA that Climate Science Watch has raised:

Government scientific information: Culture of secrecy is still a problem (October 1, 2012)

At a September 25, 2012, 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. …

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) …

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.

What to do when the White House sets science aside? (January 8, 2012)

On EPA and fracking:

“Obama and Harper — Modes of Support for Fossil Fuel Development” (October 8, 2013)

[D]espite the numerous constructive action items in Obama’s Climate Action Plan, there appears to be a contradiction at the heart of Obama’s policy, as indicated by the administration’s adoption of what they call an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy development. …

Natural gas from ‘fracking’ appears to be an essential component of the administration’s climate policy, i.e., relying on the ongoing trend of substitution of natural gas for coal in power plants in order to meet a 2020 goal for reducing U.S. carbon emissions. The Department of the Interior has proposed to open 600 million acres of public land to fracking. But fracking is controversial, raising concerns about contamination of drinking water in affected areas by chemicals used in fracking, large-scale use of water in drilling, air pollution, leaking methane greenhouse gas emissions, and industrial degradation of rural landscapes. Environmental groups have protested at the White House, calling for a moratorium on fracking on public lands.

There are signs that the administration may be allowing political pressure from the natural gas industry to compromise investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency into fracking contamination incidents. The EPA has pulled back from several high-profile investigations in a manner that raises questions about whether this indicates a pattern of failure to act on scientific evidence. When the EPA’s scientists found evidence that fracking was contaminating water supplies, the EPA stopped or slowed down their work in in PennsylvaniaTexas, and Wyoming.

“Not only does this pattern of behavior leave impacted residents in the lurch, but it raises important questions as to whether the agency is caving to pressure from industry, antagonistic members of Congress and/or other outside sources,” Kate Sinding at the Natural Resources Defense Council notes. “This trend also calls into serious question the agency’s commitment to conducting an impartial, comprehensive assessment of the risks fracking presents to drinking water—a first-of-its-kind study that is now in its fourth year, with initial results now promised in 2014.” The EPA recently announced that it has delayed the expected final date of this study until 2016 — Obama’s eighth and final year in office. Meanwhile, industry continues to create a fait accompli of radically expanded fracking operations.

Obama has adopted a forward-looking position on climate change. But his ‘all of the above’ energy policy, and particularly his full-speed-ahead support for shale gas fracking, raises the question of whether politics is impeding freedom of communication by government experts — and whether the EPA is thereby being impeded in doing its job of protecting the public against the environmental dangers of fossil fuel development.

Internal EPA report shows division over fracking contamination study (July 28, 2013)

Review comments on CAR-6: U.S. Climate Action Report draft lacks long-term strategy (October 24, 2013)

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