June 9, 2009

Experts Find Progress, but Room for Improvement, in Putting Science Before Politics at EPA

Whitehouse Chairs Oversight Hearing Focusing on Reform

Washington, D.C. – President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has made progress towards ensuring that environmental policy is based in science, not politics – but there’s still room for improvement, experts testified before a Senate oversight hearing today.

“In truth there is no silver bullet that will forever protect EPA science from political manipulation,” said Dr. Francesca Grifo, Director of the Scientific Integrity Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Any law or policy regime that is flexible enough to allow fact-based decision making is vulnerable to mischief by unscrupulous policy makers. However, there are concrete reforms that can be adopted-such as whistleblower protections for scientists and greater transparency-that will safeguard EPA’s science against political interference.”

Under the Bush Administration, EPA’s leaders repeatedly went against the recommendations of scientific advisory boards to set pollution control standards that favored polluters but were inadequate to protect public health; allowed people with industry ties to serve on scientific advisory panels meant to regulate those industries; subjected agency scientists to political pressure; and permitted outside agencies like the Office of Management and Budget to influence scientific decisions.

In his first months in office, President Obama issued two government-wide memoranda directing executive branch agencies to improve scientific integrity and achieve unprecedented levels of transparency and openness in government operations, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson has issued agency-specific guidance to employees on the proper role of science and transparency in the decision making process.

Testifying today in only her third appearance before the Senate, Administrator Jackson emphasized that “[w]hile the laws that EPA implements leave room for policy judgments, the scientific findings on which of these judgments are based should be arrived at independently using well-established scientific methods, including peer review, to assure rigor, accuracy, and impartiality. This means that policymakers must respect the expertise and independence of the Agency’s career scientists and independent advisors while insisting that the Agency’s scientific processes meet the highest standards of quality and integrity.”

Under Administrator Jackson’s leadership, EPA has taken steps to repair programs and agency protocols that were changed under the previous administration to minimize the proper role of science, including overhauling a process by which EPA assesses the toxicity and health risks of new chemicals entering the marketplace.

John B. Stephenson, Director of Natural Resources and Environment at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), said today that “EPA’s most recent changes to the IRIS assessment process, if effectively implemented, would represent a significant improvement over the process put in place in 2008,” but recommended that EPA clarify some aspects of its new policy, including specifying which offices would be involved in the interagency consultation process.

To further improve scientific integrity at EPA, Dr. Grifo recommended the agency establish an agency-wide media policy that allows scientists to speak freely about their work; streamline the process by which EPA reviews its scientists’ work intended for outside publication; ensure whistleblowers are protected from retaliation; provide the public with “more information about meetings between agency officials and outside entities;” and strengthen disclosures about the science behind agency decisions. She also proposed elevating EPA to a Cabinet-level office.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who heads the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Subcommittee on Oversight and co-chaired today’s session, expressed hope that the Administration would continue to seek out reforms.

“We cannot settle for repairing the damage caused over the last eight years,” Whitehouse said. “Instead, we must institute lasting reforms that permanently re-establish EPA’s credibility and restore the pride of its dedicated employees, who work long hours for much less money than they could be paid elsewhere, with passion and dedication, because they care deeply about EPA’s mission.”


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