EPA Scientific Integrity Plan long on policy, short on enforcement

The Periodic | By WALKER LIVINGSTON, ESQ

Jan. 24, 2024

The Environmental Protection Agency has released its draft Scientific Integrity Plan that lays out a grand plan for preserving scientific integrity at the agency. The agency’s goals, however, conflict with the actual enforceability of the policy going forward.

Background: scientific integrity at the EPA

  • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has had a long tradition of leadership releasing memorandums and guidance on scientific integrity. Administrator William Ruckelhaus released the “ Fishbowl Memo” in May 1983, which focused on promoting integrity and openness in the agency, explaining that it would operate “in a fishbowl,” meaning that the agency would do everything that it could to be transparent. The agency followed this with a Principles of Scientific Integrity document in 1999, which was developed partially by EPA labor unions and management, which included principles for conducting scientific research objectively. In 2003, the agency released Order 3120.5, which focused on how to address plagiarism and fabrication within the agency, which handed the authority to investigate to the EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG).
  • In 2012, the EPA issued its first official Scientific Integrity Policy (2012 SIP). The policy focuses on how the agency can promote a culture of scientific integrity for its employees, including a framework aimed at ensuring scientific integrity throughout the Agency, from political appointees to career employees. The policy also discusses the impact of peer review and advisory committees on agency actions, professional development within the organizations, and the scope and role of a standing agency committee focused on scientific integrity. The agency also appointed its first Scientific Integrity Official (SIO) in the wake of the 2012 SIP.
  • In the EPA’s FY2022-26 Strategic Plan, the agency dedicated its first cross-agency strategy to ensure scientific integrity and science-based decisionmaking. The agency articulated a variety of actions planned over the course of those fiscal years to better ensure scientific integrity within the organization, including updates to the 2012 Scientific Integrity Policy. The agency also explained that it plans on providing additional resources for employees and officials via a network of deputy SIOs.

2024 Draft SIP

  • On January 24, 2024, the EPA announced a draft version of a new Scientific Integrity Policy (2024 Draft SIP). The agency stated that the policy aims to “ensure the integrity of all aspects of activities that include proposing, conducting, reviewing, managing, communicating about science and scientific activities, and using the results of science.” The policy will replace the 2012 SIP and reaffirm the role of the EPA’s SIO and deputy SIOs around the agency.
  • The EPA will utilize a specific federal definition of “scientific integrity” from the National Science and Technology Council 2023 Framework. “Scientific integrity is the adherence to professional practices, ethical behavior, and the principles of honesty and objectivity when conducting, managing, using the results of, and communicating about science and scientific activities. Inclusivity, transparency, and protection from inappropriate influence are hallmarks of scientific integrity.” Under this definition, the agency stated that the responsibility for upholding scientific integrity would lie with the full organization, but that the agency’s SIO would be the primary authority responsible for enforcing scientific integrity in the future.
  • The policy is intended to apply broadly to agency actions. The 2024 Draft SIP states that almost all scientific activities or scientific review conducted by the EPA will be covered by the policies at all levels of decisionmaking, and for all employees who manager or supervise agency actions that utilize scientific information. Additional specific policies for agency personnel will be articulated in supplementary agreements and contracts in the future, but the 2024 Draft SIP will govern the full agency policy in the future.
  • EPA’s main goal is to promote “a culture of scientific integrity.” The agency stated that there were three major pillars of this promotion, including “(1) creating an empowering environment conducive to innovation and progress, (2) protecting scientists, and (3) preserving the integrity of the scientific process and the communication of science.” The agency emphasized that scientific findings should not be interfered with or delayed and should not be subjected to inappropriate influence. EPA also explained that this integrity was “everyone’s responsibility,” including both career and appointed EPA leadership at all levels. Agency staff will also receive scientific integrity training within six months of the policy being finalized.
  • The policy buttresses this plan by detailing policy on seven different areas that the agency can work on: (1) protecting scientific processes at the agency, (2) reviewing science and the use of Federal Advisory Committees (FACs), (3) ensuring the free flow of scientific information, (4) supporting decision-making processes, (5) ensuring accountability, (6) properly protecting employees, and (7) providing better professional development for government scientists.
  • The agency plans to better protect scientific processes in the future by prohibiting influence or delays from covered entities or external parties to a review. In addition, EPA plans to prohibit “inappropriate” restrictions on resources and capacity for scientific activities that could reduce the availability of science and scientific products released or reviewed by the agency. The agency plans to design and implement scientific products and activities to be independent of any predetermined outcome and reiterates that employees must base the outcome of their work on the underlying science.
  • The agency will also review its use of FACs in the finalized policy and going forward. The agency states in the 2024 Draft SIP that FACs and other organizations or employees reviewing science should follow any applicable EPA peer review policies and procedures. In addition, the agency hopes to ensure that the selection of peer reviewers is based on expertise and knowledge, and that these reviewers must be screened for conflicts of interests prior to the beginning of review.

Impact of a finalized SIP

  • Despite the lofty goals in the 2024 Draft SIP, the agency appears to have little way to actually enforce the plan. EPA speaks highly of its plan to “ensure accountability” across the agency but provides no actual methods to enforce it. Although the OIG could also step in to investigate issues regarding scientific integrity at the agency, the idea that a fully independent entity spending its already limited time (that is mostly filled with investigations of other EPA issues) investigating scientific integrity issues that EPA plans to handle internally seems unlikely. If EPA leadership wishes to enforce a scientific integrity policy with specificity and might, they likely can. However, a laxer leadership group would likely be able to allow scientific integrity to slide due to the lack of accounting mechanisms.

To contact the author of this analysis, please email Walker Livingston.

To contact the editor of this analysis, please email Patricia Iscaro.

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