Journos, watchdog groups accuse agency of muzzling scientists

U.S. EPA is blocking its science advisers from speaking freely to the public and the press, journalism and scientific advocacy groups said today in a strongly worded letter to EPA chief Gina McCarthy.

A coalition of groups said in the letter that the agency requires independent EPA science advisers who receive requests from the press and the public to refrain from responding directly. Instead, they're encouraged to direct those requests to EPA's press shop.

"The EPA wants to control what information the public receives about crucial issues affecting Americans' health and well-being," Society of Professional Journalists President David Cuillier said today in a statement. "The people are entitled to get this information unfiltered from scientists, not spoon-fed by government spin doctors who might mislead and hide information for political reasons or to muzzle criticism."

SPJ was one of several journalism groups to sign the letter, along with the Society of Environmental Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. Other signatories were the American Geophysical Union, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, and the Society for Conservation Biology.

Specifically, the groups are taking issue with an April memo from EPA Chief of Staff Gwen Keyes Fleming outlining the policy for EPA advisers to handle press inquiries. Science advisers are directed to refer those requests to the designated federal officers -- EPA employees who coordinate the advisory boards' work. Those officers are instructed to "refer press inquiries to the Office of External Affairs, who will determine the agency's response to that type of inquiry."


That policy "undermines EPA's efforts to increase transparency" and "reinforces any perception that the agency prioritizes message control over the ability of scientists who advise the agency to share their expertise with the public," the letter said.

EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said today in a statement that "transparency and openness are key operating principles" for the agency, noting that the Science Advisory Board meetings and documents are accessible to the public and the press. "There are no constraints on members of the SAB testifying or speaking to the public in their personal or professional capacity, or taking questions related to administrative SAB matters," she said.

However, she said, the April memo clarifies that -- in their capacity as special government employees -- EPA's science advisers "must adhere to longstanding agency policies governing formal and informal outside communications," and other applicable policies. "Members of the SAB are increasingly being asked by individual reporters or members of Congress to speak about the work of the SAB, and the April 4 memo is designed to assure the SAB's independence, and to assure that any SAB discussions or deliberation are transparent and open to all," she said.

The EPA Science Advisory Board was set up by Congress to review the quality and relevance of science being used by EPA and review agency research programs, among other things. It's one of several groups of outside science advisers who advise the agency on scientific and technical matters, with members including university professors, corporate scientists, medical doctors and other experts.

This is just the latest in a series of journalist complaints about transparency at EPA.

Last month, nearly 40 journalism and watchdog groups sent a letter to the White House warning that "the stifling of free expression" was occurring at agencies across the government, including EPA (Greenwire, July 9).

SEJ has accused the Obama administration's EPA of being "incredibly secretive" and frequently dragging its feet or skirting questions when responding to reporters' inquiries (Greenwire, March 18). The group also lodged complaints about the rollout of a high-profile climate rule earlier this year, arguing that the agency failed to make top officials widely available for unscripted, on-the-record interviews (Greenwire, June 10).

Twitter: @rbravender | Email: rbravender@eenews.net

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