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Government agencies aren’t prepared to protect scientists from the Trump administration

Policies to shield inconvenient truths from political interference are not in place, experts say.

A rally outside the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting called attention to what scientist believe is unwarranted attacks by the incoming Trump administration against scientists advocating for the issue of climate change and its impact. CREDIT: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
A rally outside the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting called attention to what scientist believe is unwarranted attacks by the incoming Trump administration against scientists advocating for the issue of climate change and its impact. CREDIT: AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

It won’t be easy for Congress to get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency’s mandate to protect the environment, former U.S. EPA chief Gina McCarthy said this month. But there is still a real threat to the agency.

“My concern is exactly what they’re talking about, which is diminish the capacity of the agency to do its job, reduce people, keep them quiet, don’t give them any money,” McCarthy said. “That’ll be their way, potentially, of diminishing the ability of the agency to act with the authority and responsibility it is supposed to have.”

Staff and resource cuts and the muzzling of scientists would reduce morale at agencies and, in such an atmosphere, whistleblowers may hesitate to report scientific misconduct. If the Trump administration follows the example laid out during the Bush years, when there was significant political interference in how science was done, that could spell major problems for the nation’s science-driven policies, such as pollution controls.

The bulwark against political interference is supposed to be the scientific integrity policy. These are documents that create an infrastructure to handle misconduct allegations, set up policies for external communication, and lay out how to deal with whistleblowers. The goal is to ensure that federal scientists can operate in an atmosphere conducive to the pursuit of truth, without concealment.

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The threat to science at federal agencies, particularly the EPA, seems well defined. The Trump administration will soon propose a budget for the rest of 2016 and 2017 in consultation with the Republican leadership. Myron Ebell, the former head of the EPA’s transition team, told the AP that the EPA’s $8 billion budget ought to be cut by $1 billion. Staffing levels should be trimmed by half, Ebell said.

The EPA’s social media and press accounts have been silent since the day of the inauguration, suggesting political interference on the information side. And although the Trump administration’s agenda on integrity is still unknown, some experts are concerned that there could also be political interference in science.

Attacks on scientific integrity have a long history.

That was the atmosphere during the Bush years, when the White House directly intervened in at least 20 issues, including global warming, wetlands, and oil and gas policy, according to a 2003 House of Representatives report prepared by Democrats. The Bush administration appointed unqualified industry folks to key scientific advisory boards, according to the report. They also suppressed or concealed science that did not support their policy objectives and altered government websites to carry misleading information.

Climate change was a major flashpoint. The administration removed sections on global warming from major environmental reports. Democrats often complained that EPA officials refused to analyze any legislation that addressed the threat of global warming. Most environmental rules in those years did not mention climate change.

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It was then the infamous “Halliburton loophole” was passed, presumably at the behest of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, a former CEO at Halliburton. A 2002 draft EPA study had found that the process of hydraulic fracturing posed low risk to drinking water supplies. But it was alleged by then-Rep. Henry Waxman (R-CA), that the EPA had revised inconvenient truths after consultation with an industry expert. In 2005, Congress exempted fracking from EPA oversight under the 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act.

One of President Obama’s priorities was to avoid a repeat of the politicization of science. He issued a Presidential Memorandum in 2009 requiring 24 federal agencies, including the EPA, the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), NASA, and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), to adopt scientific integrity policies that, among other things, would ensure managers cannot screen out inconvenient facts from technical materials. As of 2016, all agencies had some sort of policy to prevent abuse.

“We are in a much better place now in terms of having safeguards scientists and the use of science in decisionmaking,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

But federal departments that do climate science still do not have strong policies that could withstand such an attack, according to experts. The EPA’s integrity policy is stuck “in utero,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.

“In part because the Obama implementation of scientific integrity was so weak and feckless, agencies were able to turn in policies that were incomplete, vague and largely useless,” he said.

EPA’s scientific integrity policies were already weak.

The Obama administration was not a golden age for the EPA. In the Flint, Michigan crisis, dangerous levels of lead were found in drinking water and indicated agency dysfunction. In another case, the EPA’s science advisory board sharply criticized the agency’s report on hydraulic fracturing that found fracking has no “widespread, systematic impacts” on drinking water — a conclusion that is at odds with the technical data. These incidents suggest the EPA’s implementation of integrity still needs work, Ruch said.

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The EPA has an integrity officer who investigates allegations of misconduct, but the agency does not report these allegations publicly. The agency does not have clear protocols on how it handles misconduct, and so far, there is no indication that the agency has upheld any allegations. The EPA’s annual reports on integrity lag by two years.

“You’d think EPA, if anyone, would have a detailed policy that would try and leave a paper trail to help dispel needless controversy and misunderstanding,” Ruch said.

Some agencies have stronger policies than others.

There is a range of implementation levels and strategies for scientific integrity policies across federal agencies. For instance, NOAA has a strong integrity policy, particularly its guidelines for submitting research for external peer review. One point of concern is NOAA’s handling of misconduct. The agency insists on complete confidentiality and cloaks the complaint, the investigation and the outcome from public view. This means the public does not hear of misconduct unless the people involved step forward. At that point, NOAA can dismiss the investigation for breach of confidentiality.

In contrast to NOAA, DOI has a policy of reporting all misconduct cases to the public. In 2013, the Fish and Wildlife Service found some managers guilty of political interference in science in Texas and Tulsa, Oklahoma. It was the first time that the DOI’s scientific integrity policy was tested and misconduct upheld, and it brought a flood of negative publicity to the agency. In response, DOI reworked its integrity policy in 2014 such that misconduct investigations have to be reviewed by the Office of the Solicitor before they are finalized.

The agency rather belatedly adopted a scientific integrity policy on Jan. 11, 2017. It states that scientists can freely express their opinions; they must get a chance to review any statements released by the agency about their work; and managers should not ask scientists to tailor their conclusions to fit policy goals.

Leaks can counteract political interference.

Having a policy is nothing without implementation. A 2015 UCS survey of 7,000 federal scientists at NOAA, the CDC, the FWS and FDA found that most agencies are still struggling to implement integrity. Most employees do not read documents about integrity and there is no formal training, one respondent said.

Still, the threat now may be less than during the Bush years, Goldman of UCS said. There are many ways now for federal scientists to leak information on integrity breaches. It can be difficult for the administration to control messaging in the age of social media; for instance, when the EPA’s Twitter account fell silent, a rogue account set up by employees picked up the slack.

“We live in a different time now in terms of communications,” Goldman said.