Hundreds of EPA researchers say they were told to alter their work

Hundreds of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific staff have experienced political interference in their work, a survey has revealed.

Most worryingly, 224 scientists - 17 per cent of those who responded to the survey - said that they had been ’directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information’ from EPA’s scientific documents in the last five years.

The survey, conducted by the Cambridge, Massachusetts-based lobby group Union of Concerned Scientists, also found that 492 scientists (31 per cent of survey respondents) felt they could not even express concerns about the EPA’s work to colleagues without fear of retaliation. A total of 889 scientists (60 per cent of respondents) reported personal experience of political interference. 

The proportion of EPA scientists reporting interference was highest in the agency’s offices with regulatory duties and at its headquarters, while it was lowest in the Office of Research and Development, the EPA’s main research arm.

"Politics should not inform science, science should inform politics" - Bill Chameides, dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment



’This shows that risk assessments at EPA are really where the rubber meets the road in terms of political interference,’ says UCS’s Tim Donaghy, one of the survey report’s co-authors. ’Manipulating the risk assessment makes regulation much more difficult.’ 

Skewed, changed, distorted

Examples of manipulation cited by the survey’s responders include: changes in scientific reviews that alter the meaning of data; efforts to pressure agency scientists to ignore the impacts of a regulation on sensitive populations; and statements by EPA officials that misrepresent scientific findings. Roughly 10 per cent of the survey’s respondents are chemists and 5 per cent are toxicologists.

One former EPA scientist, who recently left the agency, told Chemistry World that while developing a human health risk assessment for a particular compound he was urged by a supervisor to downgrade the cancer risk. ’As an EPA scientist, what I found most offensive was that upper management was influencing the assessments,’ the scientist says.

’What we are finding is appalling,’ states Bill Chameides, dean of Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment in Durham, North Carolina. ’Politics should not inform science, science should inform politics.’ 

EPA, however, questions the scientific validity of the findings. UCS’s questionnaire was sent out to 5419 EPA scientists, of whom just 1586 responded - a self-selected group more likely to have grievances to air. Agency spokesperson Jonathan Shradar adds that the UCS findings ’raise questions that the agency is already reviewing.’

’Twas ever thus?

Chameides believes that blaming the current administration for the current situation is pointless. Instead, it’s more important to focus on fixing the problem, he says, adding, ’I would hope that the next president will understand that this has happened and it must never happen again.’

However, UCS reports that of the scientists surveyed who had more than 10 years experience at the agency, 43 percent said that interference had occurred more in the last five years than in the previous five-year-period. Only 4 per cent said that interference had occurred less often under the current administration.

The report follows previous UCS investigations of scientific staff at other federal agencies, such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which also uncovered government manipulation of science.

At the FDA, for example, roughly 18 per cent of the nearly 1000 scientists who responded to the 2006 survey said that they ’had been asked, for non-scientific reasons, to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information or their conclusions in a FDA scientific document.’ 

The timing of the EPA survey is particularly bad for the agency, which is currently the subject of several congressional investigations - including one that is examining the agency’s relationship with the chemical industry. 

Now, a key congressman is using the new UCS findings as further ammunition against the agency. California Democrat Henry Waxman, who chairs the House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has warned EPA’s administrator Steve Johnson that he can expect to testify about the issue at an upcoming hearing in May.

Rebecca Trager, US correspondent for Research Day USA