White House ‘Integrity’ Framework Draws Stiff Criticism From Whistleblowers

January 24, 2023

The newly released White House framework for scientific integrity policies at EPA and other agencies is already drawing attacks from a group representing agency staffers who have alleged a pattern of integrity violations at the TSCA office, calling it “hopelessly vague” and inadequate to address “hard questions” raised by those claims.

The White House Office of Scientific and Technology Policy (OSTP) on Jan. 12 unveiled a new framework for agencies to strengthen policies that protect the integrity of scientific work, including a model policy for the executive branch.

The materials stem from President Joe Biden’s 2021 executive order seeking to bolster those safeguards following allegations that Trump-era political appointees interfered in staff-led science -- including at EPA’s toxics office.

Release of the framework triggers a mandate in the executive order for EPA and other agencies to update their policies in accordance with the framework and submit them for OSTP review within 180 days.

OSTP has touted several elements of the framework as major steps forward for integrity protections, such as “a first-ever Government-wide definition of scientific integrity, a roadmap of activities and outcomes to achieve an ideal state of scientific integrity, a Model Scientific Integrity Policy, as well as critical policy features and metrics that OSTP will use to iteratively assess agency progress.”

But in one of the earliest responses to the document, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) -- the whistleblower group representing EPA Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) staffers who claim they faced interference in new-chemical reviews from managers over a period of years, argues that the improvements fall far short of what is needed.

The group’s Jan. 23 statement says the framework “is full of lofty rhetoric” but “leaves gaping holes,” especially on penalties for violations, and fails to address several issues PEER has raised at EPA’s TSCA program and in other offices.

For example, it says, “How can ‘accountability’ for scientific integrity transgressions be accomplished when committed by agency leaders or political appointees?” It also asks, “What protections if any will exist for scientists who voice professional ‘dissent,’ as encouraged by OSTP, or whose research findings clash with agency priorities?”

The OSTP framework was crafted by an interagency panel co-chaired by EPA’s scientific integrity official Francesca Grifo, based on one of Biden’s earliest executive orders. The framework follows the committee’s release last year of a report outlining agencies’ existing policies and their strengths and weaknesses.

It says OSTP should review agency policies biennially, and names a host of elements that the office should ensure are present. Those include “[c]lear documentation of procedures for implementing” the policy; “[e]vidence that key scientific integrity policy requirements are being implemented with fidelity”; ensuring that “[c]onfidentiality limits and whistleblower protections are communicated and reporting of retaliation is encouraged”; and publishing “the number and outcome of administrative investigations and appeals” under the policy, among many others.

OSTP’s Jan. 12 statement notes that it also “establishes the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) Subcommittee on Scientific Integrity to oversee implementation of the framework and evaluate agency progress.”

Need For ‘Follow-Through’

But PEER’s latest statement argues that even if EPA overhauls its policy to fit the new model, it will still lack key protections.

“While the intentions are laudable, the follow-through by the Biden team leaves a lot to be desired,” PEER Pacific Director Jeff Ruch says in the statement.

He notes in particular that OSTP is relying upon the same internal scientific integrity officers that environmental groups and Democrats have said were unable to stem scientific integrity abuses under the Trump administration. “Without truly independent enforcement mechanisms, any updated policies will prove just as weak as their predecessors.”

Despite that criticism, Ruch tells Inside TSCA that the new OSTP model policy does include potentially useful tools for whistleblowers. “[T]he feature I think EPA may have the hardest time dealing with is the suggestion that agencies have a mechanism to ‘correct the record.’ If that was applied now, the TSCA scientists would be able to correct a number of new chemical risk assessments.”

Those scientists are four staffers represented by PEER who filed a whistleblower complaint in 2021 alleging that their staff supervisors repeatedly intervened in reviews of new chemicals to loosen their conclusions and minimize regulatory burdens on industry. They sought review of the program from both EPA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the House Oversight Committee, and the OIG is preparing a report on “interference” in the TSCA program for release this spring.

Ruch points to the language in OSTP’s model policy requiring “reasonable efforts by all employees and other covered entities to ensure the accuracy of the scientific record and to correct identified inaccuracies that pertain to their contribution to any scientific records.”

However, Ruch also said “OSTP has offered no details” on how TSCA scientists could use this correction mechanism to alter a new chemicals decision. “I expect that correction of the record would be a potential remedy to a successful scientific integrity complaint.”

And he reiterated claims that the scientists filed a scientific integrity complaint about their concerns “but EPA’s Scientific Integrity Officer just sat on it,” which he said shaped PEER’s submissions to Congress and the OIG.

Following the scientists’ allegations, an EPA spokesperson told Inside TSCA, “[r]estoring scientific integrity has been a top priority across the Agency since the beginning of the Biden-Harris Administration. Significant efforts are underway to understand and address concerns that have been raised. Upon learning of these concerns in March 2021, and in close consultation with Agency’s Scientific Integrity Official, [chemicals chief Michal Freedhoff] took immediate and decisive action to respond.”

PEER’s statement compares the Biden administration’s process to the Obama administration’s overhaul of science-integrity policy, which began early in 2009. “That guidance was also quite vague, and no agency policy was rejected, no matter how weak or incomplete,” the statement notes.

It says OSTP should “issue government-wide rules that assure uniformity and provide for their enforcement as other civil service rules, such as whistleblower protection, where cases can ultimately be reviewed by courts.” -- Maria Hegstad (mhegstad@iwpnews.com)

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