Journalists to EPA: Stop muzzling scientists

A coalition of journalism and science groups is pressing the Environmental Protection Agency to end its policy of restricting independent scientists who advise the agency from talking to media outlets without permission.

In a letter sent to the agency Tuesday, the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Union of Concerned Scientists and others railed against the policy.

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David Cuillier, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, which signed onto the letter, faulted the EPA for wanting to control “crucial” information the public needs on issues affecting them.

"We write to urge you to clarify that members of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) and the twenty other EPA science advisory committees have the right and are encouraged to speak to the public and the press about any scientific issues, including those before these committees, in a personal capacity without prior authorization from the agency," the letter to EPA chief Gina McCarthy states. 

In a memo earlier this year, the EPA’s chief of staff “reaffirmed” the policy. The EPA memo said scientists advising the agency “should refrain from directly responding to external requests.”

The media and science groups though pointed out that other agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration allow scientists to "speak freely with the media and public about scientific and technical matters based on their official work without approval."

The EPA has faced increasing scrutiny from the media over transparency, and for providing journalists with background information rather than on-the-record interviews. Recently, the Center for Public Integrity accused the agency of stonewalling after it attempted to interview EPA officials on the record.

An EPA representative defended the policy, stating that "transparency and openness are key operating principles" for the agency.

The agency stressed that all Science Advisory Board meetings are open to the public and press, and questions submitted are discussed openly. 

The EPA originally sent the memo to staffers after members of the advisory board asked for clarification.

While groups' letter says the policy is new, the agency argues otherwise, saying that advisers must "adhere to longstanding agency politics governing formal and informal outside communications."