Four years after President Obama ordered new regulatory safeguards to keep politics out of the science behind federal policy, the Environmental Protection Agency still isn't training its employees on the rules or evaluating their effectiveness.
The agency, which has vast power to reshape the U.S. economy through its environmental regulations, released its proposed version of the safeguards in February 2012, but has since done none of the training required to implement them and hasn't issued a mandatory annual report on how they are working, according to EPA's inspector general.
"As a result of the Scientific Integrity Committee’s lack of progress in implementing the training and annual reporting requirements, the committee cannot fully determine the EPA employees’ compliance with the agency’s Scientific Integrity Policy," the IG said.
Contrary to the IG, however, there is a legitimate reason for the delay, according to an activist environmental nonprofit group's executive director.
EPA employees haven't been trained on the scientific integrity policy because the policy is still "in utero," lacking essentials like procedures for how to file a complaint and receive protection, said Jeff Ruch of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
"The IG's focus, while understandable, was misplaced," Ruch said.
Instead of evaluating whether agencies' policies are being implemented, the IG ought to look at whether they are complete enough to offer real guidance or protection to potential whistleblowers, he said.
Which is why, four years later, there is no publicly documented instance of the policy being used to address a complaint. The absence of complaints isn't because there is no political pressuring at the agency, but because there is no procedure in place for scientists who need it, according to Ruch.
"We think there is the same level, if not more, of political manipulation of science under Obama, but scientific integrity policies have rarely been invoked," he said.
Whether or not EPA has a policy in place won't matter until the agency is transparent about the data behind its science and decisions, said Myron Ebbel, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.
Without transparency, the agency is free to conform science to its own agency and force out anyone who dares to disagree, Ebell said.
Ebell pointed to EPA whistleblower Alan Carlin, a longtime economist for the agency, who discovered this firsthand in 2009 when a report he co-authored questioned the science behind then-proposed global warming regulations under the Clean Air Act.
Emails acquired by CEI showed that Carlin's boss rejected the report's findings because they "do not help the legal or policy case for this decision," according to Fox News.
"He was told to shut up, and that they weren't going to include it in the official record — which is extraordinary," Ebbel said.
Carlin subsequently retired from the government. He held a doctoral degree in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor's degree in physics from the California Institute of Technology.
Ebell said EPA officials tend toward uniformity in their views on scientific issues and are willing to silence, isolate or force out those who disagree with their agenda.
"They decide what they want to do, the general direction they want to go, and the level of regulation they want to achieve, and then they go searching for the science they want to back it up," he said.
When Congress and the media attempt to uncover the data used in EPA rules, the agency simply ignores them, citing privacy concerns or claiming the data belongs to third parties like Harvard University that conduct taxpayer-funded studies.
Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, recently asked EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy why her agency is ignoring a congressional subpoena for documents related to several costly air regulations.
"EPA is using the subpoenaed data to support regulations that could cost the American people trillions of dollars. Yet EPA has refused to make the data available to Congress or the American people. Regulations based on secret data have no place in a democracy,” Smith told McCarthy in a letter.
The scientific integrity policy is "meant to have holes in it so they can do what they want," Ebell said, but it's not as important as the agency's secrecy.
Other science watchdogs applauded the EPA's efforts to implement a policy and at least start down a path to greater transparency.
"While not perfect, EPA does have one of the best scientific policies of any of the agencies and departments," said Michael Halpern, program manager for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
"That said, simply creating a policy isn't sufficient, especially at as complex a place as the EPA," Halpern said.
And without knowledge of the policy, EPA scientists may be unaware of their rights to express their views about scientific findings and decisions without retribution.
If properly applied, the new policy could have the potential to "change the culture" at the agency, Halpern said. But change will depend on how well the EPA implements a policy that, right now, only looks good on paper.
"We didn't expect it to be something where, by the stroke of a pen, the culture of the agency would change overnight," he said.
Go here to read the full IG report.