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EPA employees allege leadership interference with science in watchdog survey

EPA employees allege leadership interference with science in watchdog survey
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More than 250 employees have had concerns that a manager or senior leader at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) possibly interfered with science, according to an internal watchdog report. 

The report from the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that almost 400 respondents in a 2018 survey who were "involved in science" said they had experienced but did not report potential violations of the EPA’s scientific integrity policy. 

Of those, 251 reported that their concern involved “interference with science by a manager or senior Agency leader” and 175 reported that their concern involved “suppression or delay of release of scientific report or information.”

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It stated that common reasons for not reporting possible violations of the scientific integrity policy included fear of retaliation, belief that reporting wouldn’t make a difference and perceived suppression or interference by leadership or management. 

The employee survey also found that 51 percent of respondents with a basis to make judgements said they disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement that “senior leadership makes the basis for any policy decision accessible and transparent.”

The report said that common themes from comments provided by employees included “dissatisfaction with support for or understanding of” scientific integrity by senior leadership, belief that political appointees “do not value or adequately consider science in policy, rulemaking, or enforcement decisions” and the belief that leadership is “greatly influenced by political, industry, state, or regulated groups.”

Commenters also expressed concern or disagreement with how the agency handles climate science information and said they experienced or observed “suppression, changes, manipulation, or exclusion of scientific information, results, or research,” according to the report.

The report recommended that the EPA determine the reason for concerns about culture and “tone at the top.”

In its official response, the agency said it would do so.

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“The EPA Deputy Administrator, in cooperation with the EPA Science Advisor, will work with the Administrator to devise an action plan to address this Recommendation,” the response said, adding that officials will “analyze the OIG scientific integrity survey, together with previous surveys... and reports of alleged violations of the EPA Scientific Integrity Policy to inform this plan.”

The report also found that the agency has not finalized procedures for addressing possible scientific integrity violations. 

“The lack of finalized, Agency-approved procedures for adjudicating potential SI [scientific integrity] violations— particularly for high-profile cases—limits the EPA’s ability to assess whether SI complaints are adjudicated properly,” it said. 

In response, the EPA said it would finalize these procedures and post them online by April 30, however, the report  states that the agency revised its planned completion date to Sept. 30. 

The EPA’s response also stated that the agency “has taken valuable steps to build capacity, invest in, and maintain agency expertise in scientific integrity.”

“We are confident that the work conducted at the Agency everyday rests upon a strong foundation of science, and we believe the overall findings of the OIG report support that conclusion,” said the April response memo from Associate Deputy Administrator Doug Benevento.

In the past, questions have been raised about scientific integrity in the Trump administration. 

Last year, former Interior Department employees told lawmakers that they faced retaliation for the science work, and in the past, lawmakers have called for investigations into an employee’s claim that he was reassigned based on his work on climate change.