FEDERAL AGENCIES

Interior, EPA curb 'science' and 'evidence' in budget docs

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is at the center of a controversy over banned words, but it isn't the only federal agency tapering its use of certain science-centered terms in budget proposals sent to the White House.

An analysis by E&E News found U.S. EPA and the Interior Department used the phrases "science-based" and "evidence-based" fewer times in budget proposals sent to President Trump than they did in the previous two years.

Both phrases were included in a list of seven terms the Trump administration prohibited CDC officials from using in budget documents, The Washington Post reported Friday. Other words on the list include "fetus and "transgender."

No such policy has been implemented at Interior or EPA. However, the term "science-based" appeared in Interior's budget documents 15 times for fiscal 2018 under Trump, compared with 81 times for fiscal 2017 under President Obama, the E&E News analysis found.

And at EPA, the term "science-based" appeared once in the agency's budget proposal for fiscal 2018, compared with 10 times for fiscal 2017.

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Use of the term "evidence-based" also decreased modestly in both agencies' budget documents.

The analysis looked at the frequency of the phrases in the agencies' Justification of Appropriation Estimates for the Committee on Appropriations — essentially a road map of their spending plans for Congress.

Experts cautioned against drawing any large inferences from such a small data set. But they said the changes could show that environmental agencies are tailoring their budget requests to a new administration.

Gretchen Gehrke, data quality and advocacy manager with the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science, said EPA staff may have tried to make the language more consistent with the rhetoric of Administrator Scott Pruitt.

"It disappoints me, but it doesn't surprise me. It's pretty consistent with what we've been hearing," said Gehrke, who previously served as a research scientist at EPA.

"I was looking back at the first speech that Pruitt gave to the EPA in February. In that speech, he didn't mention science or public health," she said. "At one point, he even said it's hard to convey the mission of an agency in a short period of time. But actually, the EPA's mission is a single sentence. It's to protect human health and the environment."

Gehrke said she thinks the changes in budget document language take on more significance in light of actual budget cuts to EPA. In its "fat" budget proposal released in May, the White House proposed slashing EPA by about 30 percent, taking spending down from more than $8 billion in fiscal 2017 to $5.7 billion for fiscal 2018 (Greenwire, May 23).

"If the budget weren't reflective of a real decrease in science funding, I might say, 'Oh, science-based has gone out of vogue,'" Gehrke said. "But because the budget actually does reflect a de-emphasis on the scientific aspects of EPA, I think it is important."

Toly Rinberg, a website monitoring committee member with the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, said the group has found "some language changes on [EPA] webpages that have a similar trend."

Rinberg pointed to a January report from the group that found that the mission of the Office of Water's Office of Science and Technology had been changed from "developing scientific foundations for protecting people" to "developing economically and technologically feasible industry performance standards."

E&E News also found that Interior's budget proposal for fiscal 2018 used the term "evidence-based" six times, compared with 18 times for fiscal 2017.

Specifically, instances of "science-based" fell from 10 to two within budget documents for the Bureau of Land Management and from 24 to nine for the U.S. Geological Survey.

Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said in an email, "The Interior Department has no interest in weighing in on protocol at other departments."

EPA didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

Twitter: @maxinejoselow Email: mjoselow@eenews.net

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