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Scientists ‘under siege’ from political interference

A new report says the US Environmental Protection Agency is ‘under siege’, with more than half of scientists surveyed claiming there is political interference in the agency’s work.

The Union of Concerned Scientists interviewed current and former EPA staff and surveyed hundreds more. It says:

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.

AP notes an EPA spokesman “attributed some of the discontent to the “passion” scientists have toward their work”. Jonathan Shradar “said the findings will not change anything” (Washington Post).

As one of my colleagues noted, the shocking thing about this is how unsurprising it is. We seem to have become inured to the fact that politicians interfere with scientific practice when they don’t hear what they want to hear.

“Our investigation found an agency in crisis,” says Francesca Grifo of the UCS (Reuters). “Distorting science to accommodate a narrow political agenda threatens our environment, our health and our democracy itself.”

The UCS received 1,586 responses to a questionnaire sent to 5,419 EPA scientists. Even allowing for biased responses the results make uncomfortable reading:

– 889 scientists (60% of those answering the question) had experienced political interference in their work over the last five years

– 285 scientists (22%) frequently or occasionally experienced “selective or incomplete use of data to justify a specific regulatory outcome”

– 224 scientists (17%) had been “directed to inappropriately exclude or alter technical information from an EPA scientific document”

Outraged yet? No? Try reading some of the quotes from the interviews:

I (and others) have been prevented from performing certain experiments–so that the data on sensitive topics (such as World Trade Center dust from 9/11 and Hurricane Kritina water/soil would not be generated.

The current management is openly corrupt, incompetent, and top heavy in the ratio to scientists 1/3. Scientists are not able to do research (no technicians/students/resources) and it has been suggested that we no longer need resources to publish research (you go figure!).

The pressure to toe the line the administration has drawn on many scientific issues is pervasive. This has been the worst I have seen things in 20 years.

Not that this is a new problem, among those who’d worked for the EPA for over 10 years only 43% saw more interference in the last five years versus, with 4% seeing less. Still, it’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

It’s even sadder that we’re not surprised.


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