EPA Scientific Integrity Proposal Missing Critical Elements

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) draft scientific integrity policy is missing critical elements needed to effectively safeguard science at the agency, OMB Watch said in comments filed yesterday. The policy must be improved if the agency is to ensure that the best science informs policy decisions that affect the health and environmental quality of all Americans.

The Obama administration recognizes that sound, uncensored science is critically important to protecting our health, economy, and environment. Consequently, President Obama issued a memo shortly after taking office, establishing protections for scientific integrity and directing agencies to implement them. Unfortunately, implementation of that memo has been sluggish and uneven. However, there have been some bright spots, such as the draft policy at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which OMB Watch praised.

EPA's efforts have been more mixed. For example, the process to develop a policy at EPA has been mostly open: the agency posted a draft policy and solicited public comment. But the openness has been less than full-fledged, as important appendices and references are missing from the policy posted. EPA should be sure the public has an opportunity to comment on a complete version of the policy before finalizing it.

The content of EPA's draft policy is also flawed. The draft policy moves in the right direction but stops short of what's needed to adequately protect scientific integrity. Fundamentally, an effective scientific integrity policy must do two things: prevent political interference with science and protect the free flow of scientific information. EPA's draft policy is inadequate on both counts. As we say in our comments:

In general, the portions of EPA’s draft policy that have been released to date establish the appropriate principles for scientific integrity, particularly in striving to keep science free from political interference and to foster a culture of scientific openness. However, the translation of these principles into effective policies is lacking, and we recommend that EPA make significant changes to the draft policy to address this gap.

To improve EPA's draft policy, OMB Watch makes these recommendations in our comments:

  1. Make the prohibitions on political interference with science enforceable;
  2. Strengthen protections for the free flow of scientific information;
  3. Protect personnel who blow the whistle on scientific integrity violations;
  4. Improve scientific integrity in peer review and federal advisory committees;
  5. Expand the role and responsibilities of the Scientific Integrity Committee; and
  6. Strengthen scientific integrity in interagency processes.

EPA's draft suggests that the agency understands the central role of scientific integrity in achieving its critical work to protect Americans' health and natural resources. But EPA needs more than just principles in order to have a policy that effectively upholds scientific integrity. Luckily, EPA has a great model to draw from: the draft NOAA policy. We're hopeful that EPA will make the revisions necessary to ensure that EPA science continues to be top-caliber research that Americans can trust.

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