The Environmental Protection Agency will not block its scientists from freely discussing their work in public, Administrator Scott Pruitt promised lawmakers this week, in the wake of a recent incident in which researchers were barred from presenting findings on climate change at a conference.
In a letter to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and other members of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Pruitt did not explain why the EPA had instructed two of its scientists and one contractor not to speak as planned at an Oct. 23 scientific meeting in Providence, R.I. The agency had previously said only that it was “not an EPA conference.”
But Pruitt did write that such action would not happen again.
“Procedures have been put in place to prevent such an occurrence in the future,” he noted in his letter, which was first obtained by the New York Times. And, he continued, he has assured senior leaders in the agency’s Office of Research and Development “that they have the authority to make decisions about event participation going forward.”
“As always, [agency] scientists are asked to speak directly to the science in their presentations, leaving policy statements to the relevant EPA programs,” Pruitt wrote. “Additionally, I am committed to upholding EPA’s Scientific Integrity Policy, which ensures that the agency’s scientific work is of the highest quality, is presented openly and with integrity, and is free from political interference.”
The EPA’s decision to not allow the researchers to present at the State of Narragansett Bay and Its Watershed program in October angered academics and congressional Democrats such as Whitehouse. The conference marked the culmination of a three-year study on the status of the bay, New England’s largest estuary, and the challenges it faces. Climate change featured as a significant factor in the 500-page report.
For about six years, the agency has provided about $600,000 annually for each of more than two dozen national estuaries, including the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, the conference’s host. Meeting organizers were told by the EPA that the keynote speaker, division research ecologist Autumn Oczkowski, and another colleague, Rose Martin, would not be able to make presentations there. An EPA contractor who had contributed to two chapters of the report, Emily Shumchenia, also was told not to speak.
In prohibiting the scientists from presenting their work, the EPA gave the event a much higher profile. Protesters showed up outside the venue, and angry lawmakers and academics openly criticized the move.
“This type of political interference, or scientific censorship — whatever you want to call it — is ill-advised and does a real disservice to the American public and public health,” Sen. Jack Reed (D), Rhode Island’s senior senator, said at a news conference that day. “We can debate the issues. We can have different viewpoints. But we should all be able to objectively examine the data and look at the evidence.”
In his letter this week, Pruitt said the EPA will continue to collaborate on work to improve the quality of Narragansett Bay.
Whitehouse and a group of nearly a dozen lawmakers welcomed Pruitt’s assurances that the agency would not block scientists from presenting their work, though they stressed that they intend to make sure he follows through.
“After the EPA’s reckless and shortsighted decision to muzzle its own scientists from presenting to the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program, we appreciate Administrator Pruitt’s commitment never to let this happen again,’’ the lawmakers said in a statement Wednesday. “We will hold him to that commitment.”