By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
Recently, the Sierra Club filed a complaint with the EPA Inspector General alleging that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt violated the agency’s scientific integrity policy by making false statements about climate change science. Reuters is reporting that the IG has referred the complaint to the agency’s scientific integrity official. But the EPA should proceed carefully in deciding whether to consider this as an issue that is subject to the agency’s scientific integrity standards.
Scientific integrity policies exist to prevent political interference in the process by which science informs decision making. They exist to protect the rights of scientists to communicate about their work and to prevent the manipulation and suppression of scientific evidence throughout the policymaking process.
The policies were not, however, created to fact check every statement made by a public official. They were developed in response to overt political interference in science that became common during the George W. Bush administration. Scientists were censored. Official scientific reports were altered by political appointees. Testing processes were changed to suggest that unsafe products were really safe after all. These are the types of actions that are most deserving of scrutiny.
It is tempting to want to punish public officials for lying about established science. But the scientific integrity policies do not serve this function, and for good reason. If scientific integrity officials were expected to become de facto fact police, they would spend all of their time looking at these kinds of allegations, and have little time left over to investigate actions that can have the most significant effects on science-based decision making.
To be clear, what Scott Pruitt said on CNBC was bananas. It’s unacceptable for the head of the Environmental Protection Agency to make such patently false statements. But attempting to punish the administrator under the scientific integrity policy isn’t the right approach, and could even distract public attention and agency investigative resources away from the real damage that the Trump administration is doing to our collective ability to meet the challenge of climate change and protect public health and safety.