August 12, 2014

Journalism, Science Groups Decry EPA Move to Muzzle National Science Advisers

INDIANAPOLIS (August 12, 2014)—Journalists and scientists are urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop banning leading national scientists from talking to media outlets and the public. The EPA is placing new restrictions on independent scientists who advise the agency, according to a memorandum from the EPA’s chief of staff. The memo instructs Science Advisory Board members to get permission before talking to the press, which inhibits their ability to speak freely to the public about important scientific issues, including air pollution, toxic chemicals and water quality.

“The EPA wants to control what information the public receives about crucial issues affecting Americans’ health and well-being,” said Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) President David Cuillier. “The people are entitled to get this information unfiltered from scientists, not spoon-fed by government spin doctors who might mislead and hide information for political reasons or to muzzle criticism.”

Today, the SPJ, Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), Investigative Reporters and Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press along with the American Geophysical Union, the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), and the Society for Conservation Biology sent a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy demanding the agency reverse its policy.

“If EPA scientists -- or any other scientists – can’t tell reporters what they know, then the public is likelier to remain in the dark,” said Joseph A. Davis, Director of SEJ's WatchDog Project. “That makes it easier for political appointees to mislead the public about environmental issues that may critically affect their health.”

In recent years, press groups have criticized the EPA for increasing roadblocks to information. For example, during the Elk River water crises in West Virginia earlier this year, the EPA stonewalled reporters seeking to find out how the released chemicals would affect citizens.

The new memo would extend EPA’s already-restrictive vetting requirements for responding to external requests for information to independent scientists who advise the agency. The memo states: “If a representative member receives a request from a source that they do not represent or if a [special government employee] receives a request related to [their] employment from a non-EPA source (such as a member of the press, a trade association, or other non-governmental organization, or members of Congress or their staff), the…member should forward that request to” a designated agency employee, who will either “respond to the request or will forward it to the appropriate office within the Agency for response.”

Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says that it’s inappropriate for the agency to place these restrictions on independent scientists. The memo contradictscurrent guidelines for advisory board members and also cuts against EPA’s own scientific integrity policy, which is supposed to guarantee agency scientists the right to speak with journalists and outside groups about their work.

“The public is best served by scientists who are able to speak directly about their work and expertise, without their views and interpretations filtered through public affairs officers or political appointees,” Rosenberg writes on UCS's blog, the Equation.

The actions by the EPA mirror other federal agencies’ increasing tactics to control the message and funnel reporters through public information officers rather than fostering direct interviews between journalists and expert sources. Last month, SPJ and 37 other groups voiced their concern to President Obama about this growing form of censorship throughout federal agencies. They have yet to hear back from the president.

“Journalists, scientists and citizens need to stand up and push back against these information controls,” Cuillier said. “If we don’t, then the American public will be reliant on government PR practitioners for their information. We cannot adequately self-govern as a society if we do not have independently vetted information.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet's most pressing problems. Joining with citizens across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe, and sustainable future.