WASHINGTON -- Journalist and scientific organizations accused the Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday of attempting to muzzle its independent scientific advisers by directing them to funnel all outside requests for information through agency officials.
In a letter Tuesday, groups representing journalists and scientists urged the EPA to allow advisory board members to talk directly to news reporters, Congress and other outside groups without first asking for permission from EPA officials. An April memo from the EPA’s chief of staff said that "unsolicited contacts" need to be "appropriately managed" and that committee members should refrain from directly responding to requests about committees’ efforts to advise the agency.
The scientific advisory board’s office had asked the EPA to clarify the communications policy for board members, who are government employees.
"The new policy only reinforces any perception that the agency prioritizes message control over the ability of scientists who advise the agency to share their expertise with the public," the groups wrote.
The EPA relies on independent advisory boards to weigh complex scientific information and to advise the agency on policy, such as setting new standards for air pollutants. Recently, Republicans in Congress have been critical of the scientific advisory board overseeing the review of the ground-level ozone standard, saying it failed to evaluate the consequences of recommending a tougher limit.
The chair of that panel, H. Christopher Frey, said in an interview with the Associated Press Tuesday in which he stressed he was offering his personal opinion, that he found the tone of the EPA memo to be unnecessary.
Frey, a distinguished university professor in North Carolina State University’s environmental engineering department, said that many of the scientists that serve on the committees are national and internationally-renowned experts and that EPA "need not be too strong in precluding interactions with the media or others."
For journalists, it’s the latest skirmish involving transparency issues and the Obama administration. Last month, more than three dozen groups wrote to the White House about what they described as growing censorship throughout federal agencies. Last year, dozens of leading news organizations protested restrictions that sometimes keep journalists from taking pictures and video of President Barack Obama performing official duties and two press groups urged members to stop using official photos and video handed out by the White House, dismissing them as little more than "government propaganda."
An EPA spokeswoman said there are no constraints on members fielding requests in a personal or professional capacity. She said the memo was designed to assure transparency.
The groups signing the letter include the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of Environmental Journalists, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Society for Conservation Biology, American Geophysical Union and the Union of Concerned Scientists.