Scientists Report Political Interference

By Christopher Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 24, 2008

More than half the Environmental Protection Agency scientists who responded to an independent survey made public yesterday said that they had witnessed political interference in scientific decisions at the agency during the past five years.

The claim comes from a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group that sent questionnaires to 5,500 EPA scientists and obtained 1,586 responses. Among the scientists' complaints were that data sometimes were used selectively to justify a specific regulatory outcome and that political appointees had directed them to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information in EPA scientific documents.

"Things are not as they should be at the EPA," said Francesca Grifo, director of the group's scientific integrity program. "Scientific findings are being suppressed and distorted; 889 scientists personally experienced at least one type of political interference. . . . Scientists are being pressured by outside interests."

More than 100 respondents identified the Office of Management and Budget as the source of the interference, while hundreds also blamed industry groups and other agencies, Grifo said. Morale is down because of such pressures, she said.

EPA spokesman Jonathan Shradar said the findings will not change anything. He said EPA Administrator Stephen L. Johnson, a career scientist at the agency for 27 years, carefully weighs the input of staff scientists in making key policy decisions.

"The work we do here at EPA is work we are all very passionate about," Shradar said. "When there are difficult policy decisions, not all the time does that line up with where our passions have directed us. Sometimes we disagree. . . . But the scientists at EPA are the best in the world, and their work will continue to be a valued part of any regulatory action we take."

Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, sent a letter to Johnson yesterday telling him to prepare to answer questions about the survey findings at a hearing next month.

"These survey results suggest a pattern of ignoring and manipulating science in EPA's decision making," Waxman wrote.

Survey participants included employees with training in geology, engineering, life science, toxicology and chemistry, although not necessarily at the graduate level. More than 6 in 10 respondents have been at the agency for a decade or longer. Respondents worked at headquarters, 10 regional offices and 12 EPA laboratories. Those most likely to report political interference work in offices involved in writing regulations or conducting risk assessments of potentially harmful agents, the advocacy group said.

Conducted between June and September of last year, the survey was not based on a random sample, and its findings are not scientific. But Grifo contended that it represents the first attempt to more broadly assess a problem that has frequently surfaced in anecdotal reports alleging the pollution of science by political considerations at the nation's premier environmental agency.

For instance, a congressional committee recently reported that EPA staff members had determined in December that greenhouse gas emissions endanger public health, but the regulatory process stalled after the EPA forwarded the findings to the White House.

The EPA also drew fire last month for weakening its new limits on smog-forming ozone after a last-minute intervention by President Bush. And Johnson was criticized for his decision in December to deny California's petition to limit greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks, overruling the unanimous recommendation of the agency's legal and technical staffs.

"It's hard to really know. Are those isolated incidents or did they really constitute a pattern and a trend?" Grifo said. "The advantage of these surveys is that they make that leap for us, from the anecdotal to real trends within the agency."

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