Interference at the EPA: Science and Politics at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2008)

April 2008
The work of the Environmental Protection Agency is crucial to the well-being of Americans—and as this investigation shows, vulnerable to interference from political and business interests.

In an investigation of political interference at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), hundreds of scientists reported political interference in their work, significant barriers to the free communication of scientific results, and concerns about the agency's effectiveness. The results of the investigation are detailed in a UCS report, Interference at the EPA: Politics and Science at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Please also explore the numerous fact sheets we have created on this issue, providing a focused examination of EPA Region 9 (The Pacific Southwest), and EPA Region 4 (The Southeast), in addition to taking a look at air pollution, climate change, toxics, and the relationship between the EPA and The White House.

Congress has taken notice and has held numerous hearings about science and policy at the EPA. UCS Senior Scientist Francesca Grifo testified about the investigation at three separate hearings:

  • September 18, 2008, House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on scientific integrity at the EPA (written testimony)
  • May 20, 2008, U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing on EPA’s flawed 2008 ground-level ozone pollution standards (written testimony, oral testimony)
  • May 7, 2008, U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works oversight subcommittee hearing on science and environmental regulatory decisions (written testimony)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the simple yet profound charge "to protect human health and the environment."  EPA scientists apply their expertise to protect the public from air and water pollution, clean up hazardous waste, and study emerging threats such as global warming. Because each year brings new and potentially toxic chemicals into our homes and workplaces, because air pollution still threatens our public health, and because environmental challenges are becoming more complex and global, a strong and capable EPA is more important than ever. 

Yet challenges from industry lobbyists and some political leaders to the agency's decisions have too often led to the suppression and distortion of the scientific findings underlying those decisions—to the detriment of both science and the health of our nation. While every regulatory agency must balance scientific findings with other considerations, policy makers need access to the highest-quality scientific information to make fully informed decisions.

Concern over this problem led the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) to investigate political interference in science at the EPA. The investigation combines dozens of interviews with current and former EPA staff, analysis of government documents, more than 1,600 responses to a survey sent to current EPA scientists, and written comments from EPA scientists.  

The results of these investigations show an agency under siege from political pressures. On numerous issues—ranging from mercury pollution to groundwater contamination to climate change—political appointees have edited scientific documents, manipulated scientific assessments, and generally sought to undermine the science behind dozens of EPA regulations. 

These findings highlight the need for strong reforms to protect EPA scientists, make agency decision making more transparent, and reduce politicization of the regulatory process. Congress, the president, and the EPA Administrator must restore independence and scientific integrity to the EPA by:

  • Protecting EPA Scientists: Scientists should be free to report the distortion, manipulation, and suppression of their work without fear of retribution. Congress should pass a whistleblower law that includes protection for scientists. The EPA should adopt a communications policy that lets scientists speak freely to the press about their findings.
  • Making the EPA More Transparent: Too many decisions are made behind closed doors with little accountability. The EPA’s scientific findings should be freely available to the public. The EPA should open up its decision-making process to congressional and public scrutiny to help reveal misuses of science.
  • Reforming the Regulatory Process: The White House should not change scientific findings in order to weaken, delay, or prevent new public protections.
  • Ensuring Robust Scientific Input to EPA's Decision Making: The EPA should review and strengthen how it uses the scientific expertise of its staff and external advisory committees to create policies—especially when scientific input is critical or required by law.
  • Depoliticizing Funding, Monitoring, and Enforcement: Problems with funding, monitoring and enforcement also need to be addressed by Congress and the next President to ensure that the EPA is the robust environmental agency that our country needs.

Political interference is not unique to the EPA. Use the links on this page to explore surveys of scientists at other federal agencies and examples of the abuse of science on issues ranging from prescription drugs to endangered species.