Bush Environment Officials Committed to Science
By J.R. Pegg
WASHINGTON, DC, May 5, 2003 (ENS) - Science at the U.S. Environmental Protection (EPA) is "better than ever," EPA Administrator Christie Whitman told attendees of the agency's Science Forum today.
"It is more relevant, more rigorous, more often peer reviewed and more frequently used as the basis for policy at the EPA," Whitman said.
The Bush administration is committed to strengthening the scientific bases of the agency's policies and decisions, Whitman said, and has increased funding for outside research, proposed adding more scientists to the agency's staff and improved communication and cooperation among agency scientists and policymakers.
Environmentalists are wary of the Bush administration's pronouncement that science is better at the EPA and some say this focus distracts attention from policies and regulations that are not adequately protecting public health or the environment.
"It has never been our feeling that the lack of science or scientists is necessarily the main issue at the EPA," said Richard Wiles, vice president of research at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research organization.
"Scientists are only as good as the political appointees let them be," Wiles said.
Still, Whitman believes her initiatives will improve the use of science at the agency and contends that the EPA and the American public will benefit.
The agency has gone a long way to addressing the concerns about its science in the wake of a report issued by the National Research Council (NRC) in 2000 that provided recommendations for how to improve science at the EPA, Whitman explained. This included the creation of a new position at the agency to oversee the EPA's scientific practices and performance.
The Bush administration responded to this by forming the job of the EPA Science Advisor, which was taken on by Paul Gilman, who is also the agency's assistant administrator for research and development. But one man doing two jobs is not exactly what was recommended by the report, which suggested the creation of a new position of deputy administrator for science and technology.
"EPA needs an appropriately qualified science official at a sufficiently high level to carry both the authority and the responsibility for agency-wide scientific performance," according to the 2000 NRC report. "No official below the level of deputy administrator could perform that role, because interrelated scientific and technical activities are conducted throughout the agency."
Creating a deputy administrator position just for science would require authorization by Congress, however, and Whitman says Gilman, the former policy director for Celera Genomics, is providing the leadership and insight the agency was lacking.
In a press roundtable at the Science Forum today, Gilman told reporters that the improved communication and cooperation throughout the EPA is beginning to "revitalize science at the agency." Intra agency groups and discussions have helped develop more accurate measurement techniques, and the EPA's peer review process for its scientific and technical work products has improved, Gilman explained.
Whitman also touted a proposal to make the EPA's research salaries and positions more competitive with the private sector and said the administration has requested an additional 20 postdoctoral positions in 2004 budget
The number of laboratory engineers at the agency has doubled from 150 in 2000 to more than 300 today, Whitman said, and the EPA has "increased efforts to reach out in partnership to outside groups in support of our overall environmental mission."
The administrator highlighted a partnership with the American Chemistry Council to coordinate research on understanding the effects of chemicals on the development of infant and children's immune systems. And the agency's Science to Achieve Results, or STAR, partnerships are also supporting research outside of the EPA by providing competitive grants to scientists in the academic and private sectors, according to Whitman.
The EPA chief told attendees of the agency's Science Forum that the month of May will be considered "Science Month" and that she will be visiting many of the agency's regional labs to see first hand what they are doing and "to highlight the importance of science to our work as an agency."
"The environmental challenges we face today are not as clear cut as they were thirty years ago," Whitman said. "If we are to indeed foster a healthier environment and a greater quality of life then we must continue to rely on the tool that has gotten us this far - science."
Environmental Working Group's Wiles says he wonders what the EPA might be cutting to make room for more scientists. The Bush administration proposed one of the smallest funding increases for the EPA in 2004 of any federal agency - the president's fiscal year 2004 request of $7.63 billion is just $10 million more than last year's request.
In particular, many environmentalists are worried about enforcement at the EPA under the Bush administration. Despite four large settlements of Clean Air Act violations, a new report released last week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) found that the EPA's enforcement of pollution laws has "dropped dramatically" under the Bush administration.
The survey of agency investigators and enforcement attorneys by PEER, a national alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals, found that new criminal pollution cases referred by the EPA for federal prosecution are down more than 40 percent since the start of the Bush administration.
In addition, new civil pollution referrals are down by more than 25 percent under and the number of environmental prosecutions is also beginning to fall, according to the survey.
"EPA Administrator Christie Whitman is quietly presiding over the largest enforcement rollback in agency history," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. "Field agents say that EPA management is not interested in investigating corporate crime, as a result the enforcement program is dying from the roots."