EPA Scientists Restricted from Speaking Freely with the Media

Published Jul 22, 2009

Free communication of the results of scientific research is a critical element of the scientific process and is integral to creating and maintaining an informed public. However, information from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) scientists and EPA policies indicate that the EPA restricts its scientists from speaking freely to the media.

George Gray, the EPA's former science adviser and assistant administrator of its Office of Research and Development (ORD), stated in 2008 that the ORD has "absolutely no policies that prohibit in any way someone's ability to publish their research or to talk to the media."1 In 2007, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) surveyed EPA scientists, asking for information regarding political interference in scientific work and the use of science in decision making. Large numbers of respondents reported that the EPA's policies restrict the communication of scientific results to the media:

  • 783 scientists (51 percent of survey respondents) disagreed or strongly disagreed that EPA policies allow scientists to "speak freely to the news media about their findings." Another 556 scientists had no opinion or were unsure (36 percent). Only 197 scientists (13 percent) agreed that the EPA allows scientists to communicate freely with the media. Respondents from the ORD (267 scientists, or 67 percent)—especially its National Center for Environmental Assessment (NCEA) (39 scientists, or 78 percent within that center)—were more likely than respondents in other EPA divisions to report restrictions.

  • 382 scientists (24 percent) disagreed or strongly disagreed that they could openly express concerns about the EPA's work outside the agency without fear of retaliation. Interviews with current and former EPA scientists provide some explanation for the gulf between Dr. Gray's statements and the perceptions of many rank-and-file scientists. These interviews show that although the EPA's policies may reflect a rhetorical commitment to openness on scientist media interviews, these policies do not reflect actual practice. As one former EPA scientist (name withheld by request) put it, "I was never told not to speak to the press, but conventional understanding in the agency was that it is not a good idea to do so, and that it could harm your career if you did."2

The same scientist reported that agency employees are "typically required to route media requests through the press office." This scientist described one interaction with the media after a public talk: "A reporter called to follow up and I was asked to refer her to the press office. The press office didn't know what her line of questioning would be and they were nervous about what she would ask. This ended up delaying the interview. The reporter was persistent and the time delay made her suspicious the EPA was hiding something, so it ended up backfiring. Eventually I did the interview with two public affairs officers on the phone."3

In June 2006, Cornelia Dean of the New York Times reported that Dr. James Titus, EPA project manager for sea level rise, could no longer publicly discuss issues such as beach erosion; he had to route all such questions through the EPA's press office. The office referred Dean's requests for on-the-record information to William Wehrum, then acting assistant administrator for the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation.4

In September 2006, the agency allowed Titus to do an interview on the radio show Earthbeat, but with significant restrictions.5 During the interview, host Mike Tidwell told Titus that the show's producer, Aries Keck, had described arranging the interview as a "challenging and bizarre experience." Public affairs officials at the EPA had told Keck that the station could not contact Titus ahead of time, and it had been unclear whether he would be available until the day before the interview.

When asked about whether he could discuss regulating carbon dioxide on the show, Titus replied, "I'm not allowed . . . I can't talk about what we should do as regards regulations because it's sort of a different aspect . . . Since I'm here as an EPA employee I gotta basically stick to my lane which is rising sea levels."6

In addition, a 2002 survey of the EPA's 10 regional offices by the Society of Environmental Journalists found a wide range of official and unofficial policies on scientists' contact with the media.7 Some regions required employees to route all media requests through the Office of Public Affairs (OPA), while other regions simply asked employees to inform the OPA about interviews that had occurred. Some regions had written policies, while others operated informally.

More evidence indicates that some regions and divisions do not allow scientists to speak freely to the media. A 2004 memo from acting region 5 Administrator Bharat Mathur stated, "If you receive any request for information or an interview from a member of the media, you should refer the caller to OPA. . . . Please refrain from answering such inquires [sic] directly. OPA will determine the appropriate response and who should respond after consultation with program staff, and if necessary, after elevating issues for senior-level attention."8 The EPA Office of Research and Development (ORD) sent a similar directive requiring employees to route media interviews through the OPA to all staff in 2006.9

Democracy and science are based on the free exchange of ideas. A strong democracy depends on well-informed citizens who have access to comprehensive and reliable information about their government's activities. Federal agencies must allow their scientists to speak freely about their research to the media and the public.

  1. Gray, G. 2008. Presentation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Boston, February 16. The quote was in response to a question from a UCS staff member. An audio recording of the session is available for purchase from AAAS, or from UCS by request.
  2. Anonymous former EPA scientist. 2008. UCS interview.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Dean, C. 2006. Next victim of warming: The beaches. New York Times, June 20.
  5. Maassarani, T. 2007. Redacting the science of climate change. Washington, DC: Government Accountability Project.
  6. Titus, J. 2006. Political climate change. Interview with Mike Tidwell, Earthbeat Radio, September 18.
  7. Cooper, A. 2002. SEJ survey finds EPA information policies vary by region. Journal of the Society of Environmental Journalists 12 (2) (Fall).
  8. Mathur, B. 2004. Memorandum from Bharat Mathur to all region 5 employees. Subject: Working with the press. No date.
  9. Brown, A. 2006. Email from Ann Brown to ORD-all. Subject: Media procedure reminder. February 9.