Industry’s Newest Tactics to Undermine EPA Science

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Industry is attempting some new tactics to undermine independent science and science-based decisionmaking at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA previously released their updated scientific integrity policy for public comment, and many groups, including the Union of Concerned Scientists, weighed in to assess the strengths and weaknesses of a policy designed to protect scientists and their work from political interference. Similarly, industry groups submitted a series of public comments expressing their viewpoints.

Industry groups made clear in their public comments that they are concerned about two things in particular: 1) that EPA’s political appointees and senior leadership are being unfairly treated in the policy (the reasoning is wonky, see the next section) and 2) that industry needs to step into a process called a “differing scientific opinion,” an internal agency process conducted by federal scientists (more on this in a minute).

While these strategies are new, they are built upon the old foundations of the corporate disinformation playbook. The ultimate purpose of these proposals by industry is to try and undermine the EPA’s scientific activities and science-based decisionmaking processes.

Industry frets that EPA leadership “is being marginalized”

The American Chemistry Council emphasized in their comment that they are concerned that the EPA’s scientific integrity policy is somehow “minimizing or marginalizing the role of political leadership.” The CropLife America and Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment wrote that the policy “broadly discourages the participation of political leadership in scientific decisions, even if they are technically competent.”

I need a moment to scream. The entire reason that scientific integrity became a pressing matter at federal agencies is because we’ve repeatedly been appalled by examples of political leadership overstepping the boundaries of their jobs to dismantle science-based processes at federal agencies for political gain.

At UCS, we have a database of hundreds of attacks on science collected throughout the last four presidential administrations (from George W Bush to Joe Biden). These are short articles, developed using a set of systematic criteria, that describe egregious (and sometimes illegal) instances in which science was sidelined at federal agencies for political reasons. Using a Google Site Search operator (it’s a type of query to search within webpages), I determined that 10 of our articles feature the keyword “high-ranking” in the text, 22 of our articles feature the keyword “political appointee,” 47 of our articles feature both the keywords “senior” and “official,” and 50 of our articles feature the keyword “leadership.” In other words, we have documented dozens of examples where political leadership were involved in attacks on science.

Political leadership has never been marginalized at agencies. Political appointees and others in senior leadership positions are people in power with widespread authority who play a pivotal role in shaping the direction of their agency’s science-based activities. Just like any federal employee, they need to be held to account when they decide to violate their agency’s scientific integrity policy. The problem is that when high-ranking officials and senior leadership decide to attack science, it is especially difficult for their agencies to hold them accountable for their actions.

The White House’s Office and Science Technology Policy’s (OSTP) 2022 Scientific Integrity Task Force report found that “violations [of scientific integrity] involving high-level officials are the most problematic and difficult to address.” A 2023 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that “the number of political appointees in an agency may make the agency more vulnerable to political pressure.”

To claim, as industry comments are trying to do, that political leadership is somehow marginalized by a scientific integrity policy is like claiming that a restaurant owner is somehow marginalized when their restaurant undergoes a health and safety inspection. Every staff member at a restaurant, including the owner, has a role to play in adhering to health and safety protocols. In the same way, every federal employee, including those in leadership positions, has a role to play in ensuring that they are adhering to their agency’s scientific integrity policy.

Industry wants to manipulate “differing scientific opinions”

In an equally devious tactic, industry groups are going after a new target—an important process used by the EPA and other science-based agencies called “differing scientific opinions.”

Differing scientific opinions are a strong tool that agencies can use when assessing the scientific literature. As any scientist can attest, it is extremely difficult to come to a definite conclusion about what the scientific literature is telling you. Determining the scientific consensus based on the literature often depends on the weight of evidence, which requires assessing the strengths and weakness of individual study designs and working through potentially conflicting findings between various studies. As a result, scientists who are expert in their fields and who view the same literature may reach different conclusions about the scientific consensus. If this happens at federal agencies, government scientists who disagree with the scientific opinions reached by their scientific colleagues may choose to file a differing scientific opinion.

My colleagues and I have praised the use of differing scientific opinions in previous blog posts, and UCS has long advocated for strong processes for addressing differing scientific opinions at federal agencies. For instance, when we’ve graded agency’s scientific integrity policies on how effective or not they are, we graded the policies higher if they contained strong measures related to the use of differing scientific opinions.

Here’s one example of a differing scientific opinion written in 2020 by Thomas Sinks, the EPA’s former Director of the Office of the Science Advisor, Human Subjects Research Review Official, and Acting Scientific Integrity Official. Sinks found fault with the EPA’s underlying scientific conclusions on a rule that would have restricted the use of science in agency decisionmaking.

In other words, differing scientific opinions are a purely in-house process written by federal scientists who are experts in their fields. When agency scientists and officials address the concerns raised in a differing scientific opinion, it helps ensure that the scientific consensus reached at agencies is more robust. And all of us who live in the US should readily support this type of measure, because we want the most robust science possible guiding policy decisions on things like food safety, toxic chemical regulation, and air pollution standards.

So, we were vexed and surprised to find that two industry groups told the EPA that they should be allowed to file differing scientific opinions. Union Carbide wrote that including differing scientific opinions “from all stakeholders, not just those employed by EPA, will foster the integrity of EPA’s scientific processes and scientific decision-making.” Dow Chemical wrote that “it is therefore inexplicable — and troubling — that EPA would as a matter of policy ignore DSOs [differing scientific opinions] of non-EPA scientists.” Dow Chemical even claimed that their exclusion from differing scientific opinions “would stifle the scientific process and erode the public’s trust in EPA’s decision-making.”

This is an insidious distortion of an EPA policy. Industry groups are claiming that their interpretation (or any outsider’s opinion) of the scientific literature is just as valid as agency scientists who are qualified experts in their fields. And this is certifiably not the case. Scientists who are paid by industry groups are more likely to be biased in favor of the industry’s position.

I recently wrote a blog post detailing the tobacco industry’s pioneering implementation of their infamous disinformation playbook, where they used tactics to disinform the public about the link between smoking and lung cancer. This was precisely one of the tactics that the tobacco companies used as part of their disinformation campaigns in 1950s: to claim that industry scientists paid to carry out industry-approved studies are as good as or even better than independent academic or government scientists in assessing the scientific evidence.

This is actually a pretty common tactic employed by groups like the American Chemistry Council. For years (probably decades), the American Chemistry Council has aggressively challenged the scientific conclusions reached by EPA scientists and scientific advisory committees, spuriously claiming that agency scientists and advisory committee members are simply wrong in their assessment of the scientific literature on issues related to chemical safety.

EPA: don’t fall for these industry tactics

EPA’s public comment period for its scientific integrity policy has revealed new industry tactics that offer some insight about how powerful chemical companies and their allies hope to undermine the agency’s scientific process.

Communities across the United States depend on federal agencies such as the EPA to use the best available science to protect us from public health and environmental hazards. This is particularly true for underserved communities who already face disproportionate exposures to these hazards. People’s health and safety—our very lives—depend on the EPA maintaining robust scientific processes that are impervious to industry distortions.

That’s why we at UCS will continue to press the EPA and other agencies to ensure that their processes are as robust as possible, based on science and evidence, and resistant to powerful industry pressure that seeks to weaken, sideline, or undermine them.

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