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EPA Hires Scientific Integrity Advocate

25 November 2013 5:45 pm
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Integral player. Francesca Grifo, here testifying before a congressional panel earlier this year, has been named to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to implement policies designed to protect scientific integrity.

U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology/Democrats

Integral player. Francesca Grifo, here testifying before a congressional panel earlier this year, has been named to lead the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to implement policies designed to protect scientific integrity.

For more than a decade, Francesca Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) advocated for improving scientific integrity policies at government agencies. When she commented on a draft of the policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 2011, she wrote: “These are great principles but how will this happen? Who will monitor? Who will detect problems and enforce these strong words?”

Well, it turns out, she will. EPA announced today that it has hired Grifo to oversee its new policy on scientific integrity. “It’s great news,” says Rena Steinzor of the University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore, who studies environmental regulation and the misuse of science in environmental policy.

Grifo is charged with overseeing the four main areas of EPA’s policy: creating and maintaining a culture of scientific integrity within the agency; communicating openly to the public; ensuring rigorous peer review; and encouraging the professional development of agency scientists.

It sounds like a gargantuan task, but Grifo won’t actually be checking the integrity of every committee, scientific document, and peer review. Instead, she will be focusing on improving the process, says Michael Halpern, her former colleague at UCS. Part of the job will be educating staff members. Last week, EPA launched an online training guide for its staff members to make them aware of the policy and its protections. “It’s a cultural change so that [EPA] scientists feel they can participate in public life and the scientific community,” Halpern says, and better prepare them to deal with political pressure.

If problems come to light, Grifo will help investigate. She will work with an internal Scientific Integrity Committee, as well as the inspector general. Her job is not a political appointment, so it comes with civil service protections. She will report to Glenn Paulson, EPA’s science adviser. Grifo will also issue an annual report about any incidents with scientific integrity at the agency.

UCS has ranked EPA’s policy, which was finalized about a year and a half ago, as one of the stronger ones in the U.S. government. Unlike most other agencies, EPA’s plan called for a full-time position. “While strong improvements have been made on paper, we recognize that the agency is challenged in fully realizing those improvements” Halpern wrote in a blog post.

Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility in Washington, D.C., says he is hopeful for progress. “She is coming from an organization that is probably responsible for the adoption of scientific integrity policies,” he says. “We think that these policies are potentially revolutionary. But progress has been slow and uneven.” It’s not clear, he says, what power she would have to bring relief in individual cases.