By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
Later today, a few dozen advocates will head to the Environmental Protection Agency for a stakeholder meeting on protections for scientific research at the agency in the context of its annual scientific integrity report and scientific integrity policy. The meeting is an opportunity for organizations to ask questions about the report, to give feedback to the agency, and to identify new or emerging challenges to scientific integrity at EPA. Here’s how I expect it to go down.
Why does EPA hold this meeting?
Scientific integrity policies were developed at federal agencies and departments that do science. In general, they define the role of all staff in conducting and communicating research. The policies are inherently neutral, and designed to prevent censorship or misrepresentation of science in any direction. Anyone inside or outside the agency–from a rank-and-file scientist to a coal company to a medical association.
The fact that the EPA does this meeting in the first place is notable. No other agency or department conducts such an event. And I can only imagine what it was like for EPA Scientific Integrity Officer Francesca Grifo to get approval to hold the meeting this time around. The last time I attended the meeting, the House Science Committee rustled up some serious deep state paranoia that even attracted the attention of the Wall Street Journal editorial board. It was wacky.
Invitations go out to hundreds of people and groups that have an interest in science at EPA. I expect industry groups and public interest organizations alike will be present.
What will the discussion cover?
If it’s anything like past meetings, Dr. Grifo will give a (hopefully brief) presentation about what her office has been doing to implement the policy and protect the ability of scientists to conduct research and communicate about their work. Then she will open it up to questions.
So here’s a partial list of what I’d like to know. What is being done to discourage self-censorship among scientists who intuit that agency leaders won’t like their research results? What is morale like among scientists at an agency where senior officials routinely sideline and undermine their work? How often do informal conversations about the policy with EPA staff resolve problems before they become formal misconduct allegations? Are more problems being solved informally, or addressed through formal investigations? Whatever happened to the agency’s stated desire to publish a differing opinions policy? Are there any conversations with leadership about making regular, affirmative statements about the importance of transparency at the agency and the importance of science communicating their results regardless of the political inconvenience of the outcome? Is the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy doing any work to coordinate improvements in policies and practices across agencies? Should they?
I’d also like to hear about whether Dr. Grifo believes that these kinds of protections for scientists should be made permanent. Legislation called the Scientific Integrity Act would do just that: enshrine scientific integrity policies into law to give them more teeth and standardize them across government agencies. It shouldn’t just be a few agencies that are doing this kind of work.
What will the discussion avoid?
What will be more notable is what they won’t talk about. The policy doesn’t address so many of the ways that science has been sidelined from decision-making at EPA. It doesn’t prevent bans on some independent advisors, or prevent proposed restrictions on the use of public health research in the development of public health protections, or prevent attempts to skew cost-benefit analysis. It won’t deal with attempts by the administrator’s office to avoid input from the EPA Science Advisory Board. There likely won’t even be any discussion of whether EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler understands what a double blind study is.
You also won’t hear about investigations into specific allegations of violations of the scientific integrity policies, as I know from experience that the office won’t comment on ongoing investigations.
But I expect we will hear about some progress that is being made during an unimaginably difficult time for the EPA.