EPA’s restrictive communications policy for science advisers

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The Environmental Protection Agency continues its history of restrictive policy on public communication by agency scientists and science advisers. Seven science, journalism, and public interest organizations wrote to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on August 12 calling on her to “clarify that members of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) and the twenty other EPA science advisory committees have the right and are encouraged to speak to the public and the press about any scientific issues, including those before these committees, in a personal capacity without prior authorization from the agency.” An earlier memorandum from the EPA Chief of Staff aims to restrict this right. Where is the EPA Scientific Integrity Official in this?

Full text of the letter to EPA from the American Geophysical Union, Union of Concerned Scientists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society for Conservation Biology, Society of Environmental Journalists, Society of Professional Journalists. The letter says, in part:

It has come to our attention that a memorandum from EPA chief of staff Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming outlines a new policy2 requiring advisory committee members who receive requests from the public and the press “to refrain from responding in an individual capacity” regarding issues before the committee. The policy requires all requests, both formal and informal, to be routed through EPA officials. This prevents many of our nation’s top independent environmental science experts from sharing their expertise, unfiltered, with the public.

The new policy undermines EPA’s efforts to increase transparency. It also contradicts the EPA’s new scientific integrity policy3 as well as the Science Advisory Board’s handbook.4 In addition, the new policy only reinforces any perception that the agency prioritizes message control over the ability of scientists who advise the agency to share their expertise with the public. On July 8, 38 journalism and good government organizations wrote the president expressing concern about “the stifling of free expression” across many agencies, including the EPA. 5

Full text of the memorandum from EPA chief of staff Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming outlining requirement that agency advisory committee members who receive requests from the public and the press to route all requests through EPA officials. Thus the memo would extend EPA’s already-restrictive vetting requirements for responding to external requests for information to independent scientists who advise the agency.

“The EPA wants to control what information the public receives about crucial issues affecting Americans’ health and well-being,” Society of Professional Journalists President David Cuillier said. “The people are entitled to get this information unfiltered from scientists, not spoon-fed by government spin doctors who might mislead and hide information for political reasons or to muzzle criticism.”

“If EPA scientists — or any other scientists – can’t tell reporters what they know, then the public is likelier to remain in the dark,” said Joseph A. Davis, Director of SEJ’s WatchDog Project. “That makes it easier for political appointees to mislead the public about environmental issues that may critically affect their health.”

The EPA Scientific Integrity Policy includes this, on Release of Scientific Information to the Public:

This policy is intended to outline the Agency’s expectations for developing and communicating scientific information to the public, to the scientific community, to Congress, and to the news media by further providing for and protecting the EPA’s longstanding commitment to the timely and unfiltered dissemination of its scientific information – uncompromised by political or other interference. This policy recognizes the importance of, and the need to foster a culture of, openness regarding the results of research, scientific activities, and technical findings. To that end, the EPA strongly encourages and supports transparency and active, open communications through various forms including, but not limited to, publication in peer-reviewed or refereed journals, conference papers and presentations, media interviews, responses to Congressional inquiries, web postings, and news releases.

That’s the official policy, but in practice EPA seems, instead, to go by a ‘refer everything to the public information officer or designated official’ approach. Interference with communication by scientists has a history EPA. A survey of EPA scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists during the Bush-Cheney administration found widespread reporting of multiple modes of political interference.

Two years ago we watched Gina McCarthy, then the EPA Assistant Administrator for Air and Radiation, respond to a question from Francesca Grifo — who was then with the Union of Concerned Scientists and who is now the EPA Scientific Integrity Official — about restrictions on media and public communication by agency scientists. McCarthy gave what we considered an evasive and problematic response, for which she was called out by the head of the NOAA research office (Government scientific information: Culture of secrecy is still a problem).

The letter to EPA comes in the context of widely shared concerns about “the stifling of free expression” under the Obama administration at multiple federal agencies (Full text of a July 8 letter to President Obama from 38 journalism and good government organizations). There appears to be an increasing tendency to control information by funneling reporters through public information officers rather than fostering direct interviews between journalists and expert sources. The White House has yet to provide a direct response to these concerns. (Society of Professional Journalists: White House provides non-response, response to letter opposing excessive PIO controls)

Information control, which is difficult for the public to see and understand, can be an insidious form of censorship. “Journalists, scientists and citizens need to stand up and push back against these information controls,” Cuillier from the Society of Professional Journalists said. “If we don’t, then the American public will be reliant on government PR practitioners for their information. We cannot adequately self-govern as a society if we do not have independently vetted information.”

Every administration is prone to restricting straightforward communication on many issues due to a desire for message control. Their first concern is with protecting themselves. All of them need independent watchdogs and whistleblowers to hold them accountable.

Union of Concerned Scientists press release: Journalism, Science Groups Decry EPA Move to Muzzle National Science Advisers

Earlier post:

A good new scientific integrity official at EPA (November 26, 2013)

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