EPA eases media rules for scientists

The Environmental Protection Agency is reversing course, saying that the independent scientists on its advisory committees may speak freely with representatives of the media.

The new guidance, which the EPA is calling a clarification, follows a notice earlier this year stating that scientists on advisory panels must “refrain from responding in an individual capacity” to questions from the public and media about their participation in the panels.

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The EPA now says scientists are free to respond to questions about their scientific work and their work with the agency, though they are still asked not to speak about deliberations of the committees.

“Should a [committee] member receive a press or other inquiry related more generally to their scientific area of expertise or related to their participation in a FAC (other than related to deliberations), they are free to respond to the inquiry in their capacity as a private citizen,” the EPA wrote in a notice posted to its website Monday, though issued in November.

The agency emphasized that scientists ought to say that their views don't represent those of their committees or the EPA.

The earlier policy brought significant backlash in August both from scientific and journalism organizations, who argued that it decreases agency transparency and muzzles scientists.

The Union of Concerned Scientists applauded the new policy as a clear notice that scientists can exercise their free speech rights.

“The clarification is clear and concise and, unlike the previous memorandum, one doesn’t need to consult a lawyer to understand its intent,” Michael Halpern, director of the group’s Center for Science and Democracy, wrote in a blog post.

“The clarification, which quotes liberally from the agency’s scientific integrity policy and the Science Advisory Board handbook, makes clear that scientists on EPA committees have the explicit right to respond to any inquiry in their capacity as private citizens,” he said.

The panels, including the Science Advisory Board, the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the Advisory Council on Clean Air Compliance Analysis, serve to recommend certain policies or priorities to EPA leadership.