EPA:

Scientific integrity policy draft skimpy on specifics, critics charge

U.S. EPA released its draft scientific integrity policy on Friday to mixed reviews, with advocacy groups citing concern over its lack of detail.

The 12-page document lays out the agency's proposed guidelines for unbiased research, congressional interaction and public transparency. It is part of a governmentwide effort to ensure scientific research is free from political interference, tied to a 2009 memo from President Obama that required agencies to adopt individual policies.

The current political controversy surrounding EPA's regulations -- particularly those that deal with greenhouse gases -- has put increased importance on its scientific integrity policy. Republicans have held numerous hearings on the effect of regulations on jobs, and Obama has directed agencies to rid their rulebooks of costly and unnecessary red tape.

But today, some criticized EPA's less-than-complete plan for ensuring that the science behind such regulations is protected from the charged political atmosphere.

Francesca Grifo, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' scientific integrity program, said the draft was a good first step. But she also said she was disappointed that it would not make the research behind regulations public once they leave EPA and enter the "morass" of administration approval.

Political controversy "is the burden of a regulatory agency, but that burden should fall on policymakers, not on the science," she said. "The science is what it is, and we need to protect it."

Gavin Baker, a federal information policy analyst at the nonprofit OMB Watch, said his group has been pushing for more transparency behind regulatory science for more than two decades. But he also emphasized that the rulemaking process is "meticulous."

"That said, it's not always perfect and then you have an additional set of concerns when it moves out of the agency and is reviewed at OMB," Baker said. "Because of the role of OMB review, it is positive to have greater transparency about the science behind regulations."

A work group of "senior staff and scientists" developed the draft policy, according to an EPA press release. The policy creates a Scientific Integrity Committee that will review allegations of misconduct, as well as publish an annual report that highlights successes and areas that need improvements.

"At EPA, promoting a culture of scientific integrity is central to our identity and the credibility of our work," the workgroup wrote in the draft. "The Agency remains committed to operating 'in a fishbowl' and ensuring transparency in EPA's interactions with all members of the public."

EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan said the draft was based on well-respected policies at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but he also encouraged feedback to strengthen the policy. The draft is open for comment through Sept. 6.

But Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility called the draft policy "pathetically weak." Executive Director Jeff Ruch pointed to provisions that require management approval for publishing papers, instruct public affairs staff to attend any interviews with reporters and direct scientists to ensure their own work is free from political influence.

"EPA has put forward by far the weakest scientific integrity rules of any agency. In many ways, it is a big step backward," he said in a press release. "Under EPA's plan to protect scientific integrity, only its scientists can be punished for misconduct as there are no firm rules against managers manipulating or masking technical work and no mechanism to enforce rules if they existed."

Baker, however, listed several strengths of the policy, including the creation of the Scientific Integrity Committee. Although the policy "mostly codifies an existing process," he applauded the reinforcement of the inspector general as a watchdog and a provision requiring an updated policy every two years.

But he said the group will submit comments that suggest changes to the media policy to ensure public affairs officials don't become "gatekeepers."

EPA is one of several agencies to develop drafts in recent weeks, thanks to an August deadline set by the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Though the process is significantly behind schedule, OSTP picked up the pace when it released a December 2010 memo directing agencies to develop policies for scientific integrity in government, public communications, federal advisory committees and professional development of scientists and engineers.

Agencies turned in their progress reports in April, and the drafts mark one of the final steps in complying with Obama's 2009 memo. In an email, OSTP spokesman Rick Weiss said the office "appreciates the hard work agencies and departments are putting into the development of their scientific integrity policies."

"Of course, scientific integrity does not just begin with these policies," he said. "It has been a priority for this Administration from the beginning, as evidenced by the President's 2009 memorandum that expressed the basic principles of integrity expected of all agencies, as well as by the extraordinary scientists the Administration has brought on board, the budgets it has proposed, and the evidence-based policies it has supported."

Click here to see EPA's draft scientific integrity policy.

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