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March 2 — Allegations of loss of scientific integrity at the Environmental Protection Agency rose significantly during fiscal year 2014, but a new report links the increased reporting to intense outreach efforts and the arrival of the agency's first dedicated employee on the issue.
Forty allegations of loss of scientific integrity were reported in fiscal year 2014, up from just three claims of loss of scientific integrity reported since the formal release of the agency's Scientific Integrity Policy in February 2012 until fiscal year 2014. The 40 allegations represented less than 0.3 percent of EPA staff and an even smaller percentage when the contractors, grantees and volunteers also covered under the policy are included, according to the report.
“The increase in the reporting of allegations in fiscal year 2014 coincides with both the arrival of the agency’s first full-time Scientific Integrity Official and significant increases in outreach about the policy and hence is probably not as notable as it might seem,” the report states. “Allegations from outside the agency have dropped while those from inside the agency have increased. This is a positive development that may indicate that the agency is resolving concerns before they are shared with outside parties.”
According to the report, scientific integrity is “adherence to professional values and practices when conducting, communicating and applying the results of science and scholarship.”
EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has defended the scientific work of her agency amid what she described as “manufactured” attempts from individuals with political or business motivations to undermine it.
Republicans in Congress have criticized the EPA for what they describe as “secret,” not sufficiently peer-reviewed and not sufficiently transparent scientific work that is then used as the basis for major regulations. The House is expected to vote this week on two proposals related to EPA science efforts this week.
Of the 40 allegations lodged during fiscal year 2014, 17 were received formally and 23 were informal. Formal allegations can reveal the identity of the person making the allegations.
The claims involve alleged suppression or delay of a document release, authorship disputes that could involve plagiarism and potential conflicts of interests or a lack of impartiality during peer review.
Twenty-two of the 23 informal reports came from within the agency, while just six of the 17 formal allegations did, according to the report.
Of those formal claims, “three are closed, three are being investigated by the Inspector General, one is being resolved in the affected region and the other 10 are in the inquiry phase,” the report said.
The EPA unveiled its final Scientific Integrity Policy in February 2012 and has been working on its implementation since then. The agency hired its first full-time scientific integrity officer, Francesca Grifo, in November 2013.
Besides improving the reporting and resolving of scientific integrity disputes, the EPA said five other priorities would be reducing confusion about publication authorship, increasing transparency, defining timely release of agency scientific work, enhancing peer review and reducing constraints to full implementation of its Scientific Integrity Policy.
One of the key ways to improve transparency cited in the report was ensuring EPA scientists are available to discuss their work with media.
“It is vital that EPA scientists have both training and permission to communicate their research results,” the report states. “The role of EPA scientists as translators of research is ever more important to reporters being able to write well about EPA’s research accomplishments and to enhancing public trust in the agency.”
To date, more than one-third of all EPA employees including all supervisors have received training on the Scientific Integrity Policy. In fiscal year 2013, the agency also strengthened oversight of contractor-led peer review panels through new guidelines and additional opportunities for public input on panel selection.
The EPA is also working to update its Peer Review Handbook. A fourth edition of the document is currently undergoing agencywide review and will then be reviewed and approved by the science advisor.
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The EPA's Scientific Integrity Annual Report for fiscal year 2014 is available at http://op.bna.com/env.nsf/r?Open=aada-9u8nyy.
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