By Pel Beyak
The bitter debate over the quality of the Environmental Protection Agency’s work has become as complex as the ecosystem it is charged to protect.
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), a non-profit watchdog group, ignited the debate with its controversial study four weeks ago, highlighting almost 900 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists who experienced “interference” in the language of the study. Interference took a variety of forms, from scientists being told to change technical information in a scientific document, to the misuse of data to justify a conclusion.
According to the UCS report, scientists and regulators have been impeded from their work.
“The effect of this has been devastating,” said Tim Donaghy, a scientific integrity analyst for the UCS. “These scientists are beyond the pale. They’re frustrated.”
The EPA’s scientists study air and water pollution, food safety, and climate change. After the data is collected, administrators write regulations attempting to fix environmental problems.
Two case studies describe sections of reports related to climate change being removed, as well as studies of mercury levels in women being subjected to “an unusual level of scrutiny.”
Donaghy said that the part of the EPA that was hit the hardest by interference was the headquarters, where regulations are written regarding pollution and other areas.
It is unclear, however, whether the study has any statistical merit.
“The UCS study would not meet the EPA’s requirements for a statistically correct study,” EPA spokesperson Jonathan Shradar said. “It’s below standard from that perspective.”
He said that the people who believe that there has been political interference are those that disagree with the final policy decision.
“It goes with being passionate about the issues we deal with,” Shradar said.
A major discrepancy between the two camps involves the definition of a scientist. According to Schradar, not all the surveys were sent to workers that the EPA would classify as scientists. The UCS report describes the various ways that the survey mailing list was compiled. In one section, the report states that certain names were taken from staff lists that did not include job titles, providing a chance for non-scientists to respond to the survey.
Daniel Press, professor and chair of environmental studies, notes that government scientists do not often produce science independently. Instead, it is done in partnerships with industry and academia. Therefore, even though government science might be getting suppressed, civil servants are not the only ones informing policy.
“[The agency] is not operating in a vacuum,” Press said. “They usually employ consultants and partners and they get people testifying from other sources.”
Press said that when science is suppressed for the duration of a presidency, problems arise when the EPA takes no action based on the hushed information.
“It’s not that everything is on hold and you wait through it,” Press said. “You lose [environmental] protections, you pollute, people get sick. Kids continue to breathe unhealthful air and they become asthmatics.”
Press’ view is that, no matter the reputation of an organization or agency, its political opponents will view them unfavorably. Since the UCS criticized the EPA, it is expected that the UCS’s statistical integrity will be attacked.
“You’re not going to say, ‘The Union of Concerned Scientists is the most careful, rigorous, reputable outfit there is, and I think they’re wrong,’” he said. “You’re going to have to attack [the UCS’s] methodology and their approach, because it’s politically weaker if you don’t.”