This Monday I attended a lecture titled, “Scientific Integrity on Federal Decision Making: Where Politics and Responsible Conduct Collide” given by Dr. Francesca Grifo, who is the head of the Office of Scientific Integrity at the EPA. What the heck? What is this “office”? It sounds too good to be true! Scientific integrity in an agency integrated with politics!? Well, as Dr. Grifo eloquently explained, this office exists to, among many other goals:
- solve the problems of manipulation, suppression, or delay of the EPA’s scientific reports
- create a culture that is welcome to dissenting opinions by critical scientists
She began the talk with the story of how the world found out that lead is poisonous. Basically, a scientist made the discovery back in the day that a threshold concentration of lead is dangerous to humans, but he was harshly criticized and ostracized by the lead-based paint and gas companies, who essentially said he was wrong. It took thirteen years of this scientist being demeaned and hated on for the CDC to come out with lower maximum allowable concentration levels. The toxic substance was lowered from 15 ug/dL to 1.4 ug/dL. This story represents how even though the science is correct, policy is never guaranteed to follow, even when public health is in danger.
The three reasons Dr. Grifo gave for this major problem are ideology, money (we live in a political system where elections are donated to), and that a company cannot anger a contingency if they are receiving necessary benefits from them. She proceeded to explain that there will always be a tension between science and politics. This is where research integrity comes into play. The issue is with the supervisors of the scientists; how are the scientists’ results communicated and utilized?
Steps are being taken by the EPA towards the solution to this problem, and it has started with Dr. Grifo, the first full-time scientific integrity official in the agency. They have created procedures for reporting and resolving allegations: those reporting on questionable scientific integrity within the agency can remain anonymous, which is really important so that nobody will be afraid of losing their job by reporting their supervisor for manipulating their data for more favorable results, or requesting the scientists to not report certain parts of the results, for instance.
I know that all of this news sounds too good to be true, but it gets better! The EPA will be providing access to all of their scientific studies in a more timely matter.
Dr. Grifo gave us advice for how to ensure that this office continues, and that advice is to vote! The EPA is a federal agency that can be altered by whoever is president, so we all need to make sure our vote is going to the right person.
As somebody majoring in environmental engineering/environmental science in IDEAS at Lehigh, I feel like this is a career path that I and those in similar majors could take. The job incorporates the major theme of IDEAS, maintaining ethics in engineering and science. My generation is very critical of the lack of science in policymaking, so I think that this Office of Scientific Integrity is appreciated by and an interest to many my age who want there to be more transparency at the EPA.