EPA is drawing closer to cementing President Joe Biden’s plans for protecting science across the federal government, but the agency’s proposed safeguards for its own researchers are already coming under scrutiny.
This month, EPA asked its employees to review the agency’s draft scientific integrity policy, which is expected to be released soon to the public. The guidelines — the product of more than a decade of work at the agency that was further elevated since the beginning of the Biden administration — could serve as a shield for science from political interference that became commonplace during the Trump administration.
Yet the draft policy, which should be a reinforced defense for EPA’s scientists, is facing stinging criticism from some watchdog organizations that have pushed for strong protections.
Kyla Bennett, the science policy adviser for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a whistleblower group for staff at environmental agencies, said that EPA must rely on the best available science. But she argued that the agency’s scientific integrity policy in its current form is not forceful enough and could let offenders off the hook.
“These nebulous scientific integrity policies, they are just word salad,” Bennett said. “If we don’t have a bulletproof way of EPA using good science, we’re doomed. We don’t know what is coming down the pike.”
PEER, which shared a copy of the draft policy with E&E News, said it lacks clear rules and procedures to prevent suppression of scientific information and ensure investigations of misconduct allegations. That includes not specifying penalties for the policy’s violators and attempting to block disclosure of their names.
Instead, the agency should “expeditiously draft … necessary procedures” for “addressing scientific integrity concerns” as well as clearing scientific work and communications. The public interest group notes EPA has never drafted such rules, despite having a scientific integrity policy since 2012.
“If we don’t have a good scientific integrity policy that is enforceable, what the hell is the point?” Bennett said.
Francesca Grifo, the scientific integrity official at EPA, said in an interview that the draft policy was still subject to change. Asked about PEER’s criticism of the document, Grifo said she appreciated the feedback from those outside the agency.
“We welcome all the comments from our stakeholders,” Grifo said. “We will be examining and analyzing each and every one and giving them full consideration.”
Liz Borkowski, the managing director of the Jacobs Institute of Women’s Health at George Washington University, saw positive aspects in the draft policy, including a provision barring performance reviews taking a negative view of EPA researchers who offer differing scientific opinions. But she also cautioned about the lack of procedures within the document.
“The degree to which this policy actually protects employees from retaliation will depend to a large degree on the specific procedures EPA still needs to draft and how well those procedures are implemented,” Borkowski said.
Others had similar sentiments about the draft document.
“I do think the policy continues to miss the mark on accountability,” said Jacob Carter, a scientist at the Partnership for Policy Integrity, which works to ensure scientific integrity. “There is certainly more detail provided in the responsibilities of various leaders at EPA who will ensure that the policy is implemented, but it is still unclear what accountability looks like for violators and what that process will look like.”
Several, however, said the draft policy does help protect EPA scientists’ free speech rights. Included in the document is the phrase “speaking or writing on behalf of EPA” regarding when researchers are making or publishing statements about scientific findings or policies.
That phrase “is so dramatic that it removes almost all objections to this provision,” said Jeff Ruch, PEER’s Pacific director. “Without that qualifying phrase, it casts a chill across federal service, putting scientists in a potential situation for discipline for candidly discussing the implications of their research.”
Ruch said the watchdog group will be asking scientific integrity officials at other agencies to go with the EPA version of that language for their own policies.
“It makes clear that scientists can speak freely with the media without having to seek permission from management or supervisors — this was not clear before,” Carter said.
He added, “We need more scientists, especially federal scientists, speaking to the public and the media about their scientific work, so I think this a strong provision in EPA’s new policy.”
‘Lessons learned’ on scientific integrity
Earlier this month, Grifo asked EPA employees to comment on the draft scientific integrity policy. She noted in an internal email obtained by E&E News that the Biden administration has pledged to restore trust in federal science, releasing a governmentwide memo in 2021 and then a framework for agency scientific integrity policies from the White House science office in 2023.
“This draft EPA Scientific Integrity Policy is built on the Framework, lessons learned from over 10 years of implementing EPA’s Scientific Integrity Program, results from past scientific integrity surveys, comments from our unions, and results from our Tribal consultation,” Grifo said in the Jan. 8 email.
Others within the agency have pushed for tougher safeguards for science. American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, EPA’s largest union, proposed to include a scientific integrity article in its next contract with the agency.
Joyce Howell, executive vice president and chief negotiator for AFGE Council 238, said EPA and the union are still in bargaining over that deal. Howell also said the agency and AFGE have reached a tentative agreement on the scientific integrity article but she could not discuss further details of that provision.
Scientific integrity continues to be a problem at the agency.
EPA’s inspector general has identified the issue as one of the agency’s “management challenges” this year. In 2023, the watchdog office said EPA’s scientific integrity review of the “forever chemical” PFBS — part of the per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, family — was seriously flawed and interfered with by Trump political appointees.
Former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, may return to office next year if Biden loses reelection. His administration saw a spike in alleged scientific misconduct that resulted in Biden’s pledge to safeguard research during his time in office.
Asked if it was important to finish the policy during the Biden administration, Grifo said, “It is important to finish it, full stop.
“We hope to have a final version late spring,” Grifo said.
EPA employees have until Jan. 31 to comment on the policy. Bennett said the agency needs to hear from its staff on scientific integrity.
“No one goes to work at the EPA to get rich and famous,” Bennett said. “They go to work at the EPA because they want to do good science. And they’re getting frustrated.”
In addition, the agency has planned a 30-day comment period for the public to weigh in on the policy, according to a notice in the Federal Register‘s public inspection issue. That indicated the public comment notice would be formally published Wednesday.
“We want to hear from the public,” Grifo said. “Our stakeholders have a lot at stake.”
Reporter Sean Reilly contributed.