EPA headquarters in Washington.

EPA headquarters in Washington. V_E / Shutterstock.com

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Inquiries at EPA's Science Integrity Office Spike Under Trump

Employees are increasingly going to integrity officers with concerns over interference into science.

Inquiries to the Environmental Protection Agency office that protects science have spiked during the Trump administration amid widespread reports that political appointees have interfered with the work of career employees.

The allegations—and requests for advice—were lodged with EPA’s Scientific Integrity office and have focused increasingly on instances of interference. Office leaders said on Thursday the increase was attributable to a variety of factors, including a larger outreach and education effort.

The office, which receives allegations of violations of EPA’s robust science integrity policy as well as solicitations for advice on diffusing situations before official investigations are launched, has already received more than 60 inquiries in the first three quarters of fiscal 2019. It averaged slightly more than 20 inquiries per year from 2012 through 2016. The points of contact with the office remained low in fiscal 2017 but began to spike last year.

In many instances, employees are simply confusing science and policy, said Francesca Grifo, EPA’s top scientific integrity official, at a public hearing on Thursday.

“'My science says this and the policy ended up over here,'” Grifo said, describing the types of complaints her office sometimes receives. With a shrug, she added, “That’s just how it works with our statutes.”

In other cases, Grifo’s office will try to resolve disputes that could result from simple disagreements. She described one case in which she instituted a policy in an EPA component that allowed scientists to signal when they felt they were being interrupted in meetings by raising pencils fitted with red flags. Grifo also recalled a high-profile 2017 case in which media reports circulated about EPA blocking some of its scientists from going to a climate conference they had previously been cleared to attend. Her office intervened, and the employees ultimately attended.

Once her office receives a formal allegation, Grifo said, her staff “goes a little crazy over it.” The review can involve poring through hundreds of pages of documents and talking to the officials involved. While she lacks the teeth to demand personnel actions, her office will make recommendations and follow up to see what actions were taken. Since fiscal 2012, slightly more investigations resulted in unsubstantiated allegations than those that were substantiated. Officials said on Thursday they hoped the emphasis on advice has helped identify potential problems before things go wrong.

About half of inquiries in fiscal 2019 alleged interference with scientific work, compared to less than one-quarter in fiscal years 2012 to 2018. Grifo noted that employees coming to her office are putting their careers at risk, so her office takes great care to protect their anonymity.

Rep. Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce’s panel on the environment and climate change, attended the meeting to solicit support for his bill that would add protections for federal scientists and their work. Grifo told the congressman that her office is doing important work and “anything that supports that work is also going to be good.”

Tonko said after the meeting he was driven to introduce his bill and attend the meeting because there is currently a “tone set in government that science doesn’t matter.”

“There’s this growing sense of losing your value or not having your value respected,” Tonko said. “I just want to know that these scientists that have become the culture of our agencies are respected for the professionalism they bring, for the knowledge bank that they are and the institutional knowledge that they become.”

The integrity officials said they have placed a newfound emphasis on encouraging differing scientific opinions. They said EPA should cultivate a culture in which opinions that go against the grain are normalized and legitimized. That focus would also serve to help EPA “anticipate counterarguments and alternative positions that could arise during public comment, peer review and litigation,” Grifo said.

During his tenure, former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt promoted the formation of a “red team, blue team” debate to dispute the science underlying climate change. The idea was ultimately thwarted.

EPA held the hearing amid rising tensions between the Trump administration and the scientific community. The Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a survey last year that found many federal employees in scientific jobs were feeling stymied by censorship and interference from political appointees. About 20 percent of respondents said that influence of political appointees, or of the White House itself, was a top barrier to science-based decision-making. And 50 percent of scientists surveyed agreed or strongly agreed that political considerations are hindering agencies’ ability to make science-based decisions.

Employees at agencies like NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have told Government Executive they are facing unprecedented interference from political leadership, including rollbacks of previous work and meddling in research. Scientists reported being left out of key meetings, feeling fearful in their offices and a general sense of low morale.

Image via V_E / Shutterstock.com.