Junked Scientists

Copyright 1998 Washington Times
May 12, 1998

"Science should never be adjusted to fit policy," an Environmental Protection Agency advisory panel said in 1992. "Yet a perception exists that EPA lacks adequate safeguards to prevent this from happening." When, four years later, career EPA scientist David L. Lewis found that agency administrator Carol Browner had actually aggravated the problem rather than relieved it, he went public with his complaint in the British scientific journal Nature.
     Writing under the headline "EPA Science: Casualty of Election Politics," Mr. Lewis said the agency had an "irrational approach" to protecting public health: First come the regulations, then comes the science to justify them, rather than the other way around. How did EPA react to this criticism by one of its own? By investigating him for alleged ethics and Hatch Act violations.
     What happened to Mr. Lewis is one of the subjects of a press conference scheduled today outside the Capitol, but it is by no means the only agency horror story. According to a report the National Wilderness Institute is releasing at the press conference, EPA has tried to squelch whistle-blowers, pressured scientists to lobby lawmakers in violation of federal law, submitted back-dated documents to federal courts to justify agency actions and more.
     In 1995, the agency stonewalled House Commerce Committee requests for a document on EPA climate-change proposals for almost two years. When finally the document was leaked to the committee in 1996, the reasons for the obstruction became clear: The plan called for some 39 new taxes and fees to further the administration's climate-change agenda.
     Still another document highlighted agency plans to lean on, of all groups, the National Parent Teachers Association for political favors. "The PTA," it said, "could become a major ally for the Agency in preventing Congress from slashing our budget, but their voices need to be heard."
     Such activities have attracted attention from federal lawmakers like David McIntosh, who is scheduled to appear at the press conference. "This kind of conduct," said Mr. McIntosh, chairman of a Government Reform and Oversight subcommittee, "breeches the public's trust in our regulatory agencies."
     Still, it is what the agency did to one of its own scientists that is most remarkable. Mr. Lewis had been with the agency since Richard Nixon created it in 1970. He has published widely in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and is, The Washington Post reported, one of EPA's "leading researchers" on air and water pollution issues.
     With a record like that, one would have thought that when he wrote Miss Browner to express concern that agency science was getting lost in politics and red tape, somebody would have listened. Instead, agency officials turned petty. They accused him of using a disclaimer with his writings that was inadequate to make clear he spoke for himself, not the agency -- an alleged violation of executive-branch rules. Worse, they alleged he had violated the Hatch Act (which limits certain political activities of government employees) because he had expressed support for a Republican-led regulatory-reform bill. Mr. Lewis subsequently hired a lawyer and sought whistle-blower protection. Department of Labor officials, who adjudicated the proceedings, sided with Mr. Lewis down the line. EPA settled the case and last month issued him an apology. But his career has hit a dead end nonetheless.
     "EPA scientists know what Carol Browner cannot seem to understand," he says. "Bad science does not protect the environment. She has let EPA's science organization go without a permanent head for much of her administration, buried scientists in bureaucratic red tape, and aggressively punished those who speak out about the agency's problems." Mr. McIntosh and Mr. Lewis deserve credit for making the case for sound science and, ultimately, sound public policy. Bad policy protects the environment and public health no better than bad science.

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