A periodic survey of U.S. federal scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) caused a bit of a kerfuffle at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last month.
For the ninth time since 2005, the science advocacy group sent out a survey to more than 63,000 federal scientists across 16 agencies to gather information about what's happening inside the federal government in relation to scientific integrity.
Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS, said his staff reached out to the agencies to let them know the survey was forthcoming: a memo EPA apparently missed.
"The unannounced, unauthorized, and perhaps illegal message found below this message was sent to me today," Brian Melzian, an EPA oceanographer in Rhode Island, wrote in a 12 February email to EPA's Computer Security Incident Response Center (CSIRC) and others obtained by UCS.
"Because the U.S. EPA employees have NOT received any information about this 'Study,' this study may NOT be legitimate, legal, and proper for EPA employees to complete," he wrote.
Melzian continued: "Finally, if the message found below is legitimate and not bogus, these organizations have been grossly negligent and incompetent for distributing this message without first being authorized and approved by EPA."
Rosenberg said while UCS did inform EPA the survey was coming, he is not required to do so and it's up to the agencies to choose whether and how they inform employees about it.
The survey comes at a particularly sensitive time as climate and other science advocates worry the Trump administration has politicized and delegitimized scientific inquiry (Climatewire, 9 August 2017).
I worry there is some degree of intimidation going on there that's keeping them from filling it out.
Survey still open
While the survey will remain open for another couple of weeks, the response rate so far has been low—a fact Rosenberg attributes to fear of retaliation.
"It suggests the climate and culture for scientists is really fearful," he said. "The culture we've seen more broadly in this administration has been either dismissal or hostility toward science."
A spokesman for EPA said it didn't make sense to him that employees would be afraid to fill out the survey since it is anonymous but declined to comment further.
As of 2 March, response rates for EPA hovered around 2 percent, with 296 completed surveys, compared with NOAA's response rate, which was 4.1 percent with 460 completed surveys. Still, in 2015 NOAA's response rate was 19.6 percent with 2,388 completed responses.
While EPA employees did not participate in 2015—the agency said it would conduct its own scientific integrity survey—it did join in previous years. In 2007, under President George W. Bush, the agency's response rate was 29.3 percent with 1,586 completed surveys, according to UCS records.
The poor response rate this year at EPA may also stem from the EPA CSIRC's recommendation that the survey be marked as spam.
Tammy Stein with EPA's National Enforcement Investigations Center forwarded UCS's email to CSIRC, the technology office, and all regional information security officers and wrote: "Suspicious activity."
CSIRC responded to Stein saying an analysis of the UCS survey request determined the email was SPAM "stemming from an unknown entity."
"CSIRC recommends that if this email was unsolicited, that you treat the email as SPAM, do not click any links, and delete the email," the email states.
However, the following day an email from the Office of General Counsel's Ethics Office states that employees are allowed to participate in the survey if they do so on their own time and do not use a government computer.
Rosenberg said even with permission, employees might feel cautious about taking the survey. He said receiving a note from the Ethics Office, regardless of the contents, can act as a red flag.
"You read the email and if you're a cautious civil servant you'd say, I'm not touching this," he said. "EPA is now saying the staff level is below the years of the Reagan administration after big cutbacks, so people have a good reason to worry about their jobs."
He added: "What you want them to be doing is worrying about science, not worrying about their jobs."
Joel Clement, the former top climate policy expert at the Interior Department before he resigned last summer, said he's also concerned about why employees aren't filling out the survey.
"I worry there is some degree of intimidation going on there that's keeping them from filling it out," he said. "It certainly matches their approach at Interior right now, which is to avoid consulting with the career staff, to cut them out of the decisionmaking process and in some cases to intimate them."
Clement, who resigned in protest from Interior after he was transferred to an office that oversees oil and gas royalties, joined UCS as a senior fellow earlier this year. He said the morale at Interior now is "probably as bad as it's ever been."
He said, in particular, the dismantling of Interior advisory committees has taken its toll on staff. Without the landscape conservation cooperatives (LCCs), which the Fish and Wildlife Service oversees, an effective avenue for engaging stakeholders and affecting meaningful policy has been lost, he added.
"These were multi-stakeholder, problem-solving committees addressing things like climate impacts," he said. "They were doing all the right things in terms of sustainable solutions, but because they were an Obama-era program, they shut down the steering committees."
"Anything that has a whiff of climate change is being hobbled or deleted," he said.
Reprinted from E&E Daily with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2018. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at www.eenews.net