A group of scientific and journalism organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists and American Geophysical Union, criticized the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Tuesday for limiting its independent scientific advisers from speaking directly to the press.
“The new policy undermines EPA’s efforts to increase transparency. It also contradicts the EPA’s new scientific integrity policy as well as the Science Advisory Board’s handbook,” the groups said in a letter sent to EPA head Gina McCarthy. “In addition, the new policy only 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 points specifically to a memorandum sent in April by the agency’s chief of staff to members of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) and the twenty other EPA science advisory committees discouraging them from responding directly to requests from the press and public. Instead, the memo reads, “it is important that unsolicited contacts from outside entities be appropriately managed” by referring them to designated federal officers, who will then pass the request on to the Office of Public Affairs.
Policies such as this effectively muzzle science advisers from communicating with the press and the public on key issues, the groups argue, particularly considering “the EPA relies on independent advisory boards to weigh complex scientific information and to advise the agency on policy, such as setting new standards for air pollutants,” as the Associated Press noted.
EPA spokesperson Liz Purchia said in an email that the agency will be responding to the letter, emphasizing that “transparency and openness are key operating principles for EPA, particularly in the development of Agency regulations and policies.”
Purchia said “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 also added that the April memo was a reflection of longstanding policies governing formal and informal communications. “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,” Purchia said.
Beth Parke, Executive Director of the Society of Environmental Journalists, one of the groups that signed on to the letter, said the last portion of Purchia’s statement in particular puzzled her. “Journalists would not associate this requirement on members of the SAB (whereby government scientists must seek approval for speaking to journalists on any issue under the purview of the SAB) with the concept of ‘transparency’ in any way,” Parke said via email. “Last time I checked a few dictionaries, the definition of transparency read more like this: ‘characterized by visibility or accessibility of information.'”
SEJ has been on the record for several years regarding Obama administration policies that it believes obstruct the free flow of information to the public. Last month, 38 journalism groups wrote to President Obama asking him to fulfill his previous pledge to run the most transparent administration ever, citing “politically driven suppression of news and information” across multiple agencies. And a 2010 letter to communications director Dan Pfeiffer objected specifically “to the requirement that journalists and federal employees notify or obtain permission from an official to conduct an interview,” as well as “to public information officers listening to interviews.”
The organization has also criticized the EPA for avoiding reporters’ questions or deliberately dragging its feet when responding to press requests, with this year’s massive chemical spill in West Virginia serving as a key example. Lisa Song and Jim Morris of InsideClimate News recently spent more than five months waiting for the agency to respond to their questions about air pollution stemming from the fracking boom in Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale. “The EPA’s non-responsiveness in the Texas air pollution story is especially troubling because it keeps taxpayers in the dark about the agency’s handling of a critical environmental issue,” Song and Morris wrote. After sending multiple requests for on-the-record interviews, the reporters finally spoke with Ron Curry, EPA regional administrator in Dallas, this week.
Along with SEJ, SPJ and AGU, Tuesday’s letter to McCarthy was signed by Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the Society for Conservation Biology.