Science, accountability and the EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency was created 47 years ago. It is not mentioned in the Constitution of the United States, nor does it owe its existence to an act of congress. Its genesis, rather, is an executive order signed by Pres. Richard Nixon on Dec. 2, 1970. 

It was created in response to the National Environmental Policy Act and intended as an umbrella agency to “permit coordinated and effective government action on behalf of the environment.” Since that initial legislation, congress has enacted dozens of other environmental laws that are administered by the EPA, which has an annual budget of more than $8 billion.

Like every other governmental agency, once created it took on a life of its own. Its chief administrative officer and a few secondary officers may be appointed by the president, but the other 15,000 employees are unaccountable bureaucrats. 

I realize that the term “unaccountable bureaucrats” has a pejorative ring to it. I assure you that it is not intended as an insult, merely an accurate description. A bureaucrat is simply a person who rules (crat) in a bureau (an agency). Anybody who makes and enforces rules fits that description. “Unaccountable” simply means that a person is given a certain amount of discretion to do so.

Over the years many unaccountable bureaucrats have sullied the term by abusing their discretion. But many others have served faithfully and well by holding themselves accountable to a higher standard. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Good government is always a balancing game between allowing the freedom to unleash human ingenuity, on the one hand, and providing reasonable and enforceable boundaries on the other hand. This is true both for an administrator’s judgments over bureaucrats, and for the rule of those bureaucrats over ordinary citizens.

The chief administrative officer is charged with balancing these competing concerns. In doing so, he or she will always be criticized by many in the bureaucracy for not giving them enough discretion, power, or money. That’s no surprise. But limits on the bureaucrats allow human ingenuity to flourish in the private sector.

That’s the battle unfolding in the EPA right now. Administrator Scott Pruitt has been on the job for a year and has become the focus of a lot of negative press lately. His critics are bureaucrats and their sympathizers in the progressive press. None of them are happy with the accountability measures he is putting in place at the EPA.

Last October, I wrote in these pages about how Pruitt put an end to the underhanded practice of “sue and settle,” which bypassed the congressionally mandated regulatory process. Agency insiders would instruct radical environmentalists when and how to sue the agency. Then, they would settle out of court and have a judge rubber-stamp a new rule without having to go through the careful public process.

Putting an end to that practice did not make Pruitt popular among career bureaucrats, but it was most certainly faithful to his oath of office and his mission as the chief administrator of the EPA.

About the time I was writing about “sue and settle,” Pruitt changed another long-time practice at the EPA, one that virtually guaranteed skewed science. The agency uses part of its $8 billion budget to award research grants. This is intended to pay scientists to compile and analyze data so the agency can make environmental decisions with the best objective knowledge base.

It looks good on paper, but there are hidden pitfalls. When the government has billions of dollars to spend, and a scientist needs only a few thousand to put bread on the table, it creates a gigantic power differential that is open to abuse. 

Bureaucrats can funnel research grants to scientists who support their agenda and withhold money from those who don’t. When this happens consistently enough, word gets out in the scientific community and pressures everyone to toe the line.

Government-awarded research grants can make the difference between keeping a program afloat and needing to find a new job. You can imagine how strongly that can influence research outcomes. I make no particular accusations here; you can research the subject yourself. I am only pointing out that among mere mortals, the incentive to skew science is strong.

Pruitt has not directly addressed this problem. Instead, he addressed a related practice that made the problem even worse. Breaking its own ethical standards, the EPA has been appointing these same scientists to its own advisory boards. 

This creates a situation of inbreeding. Not only can the EPA put its huge thumb on the scale to affect research, it could also amplify that skewed research by giving those scientists direct influence over the policymakers.

Last fall, Pruitt ended this over-the-top abuse. Now, scientists simply have to choose one or the other. They can either serve on EPA advisory boards without EPA money given to their research programs, or they can receive EPA research grants and step down from the boards. They can’t do both. While this doesn’t end all temptation to skew science, it does moderate it greatly.

In late March, Pruitt announced another improvement in EPA accountability; the EPA will ban the use of “secret science.” This sounds like a no-brainer. After all, the very word “science” means knowing. How can you have knowledge that is unknown (secret)?

One of the fundamental rules of science is that research should be objective and repeatable by any other scientist. This is the whole idea of peer review. If your own scientific colleagues cannot verify your research, it is worthless science.

But for years the EPA has been making and enforcing rules on the basis of “scientific studies” that it refuses to release to the public. For decades, expensive air quality regulations have been promulgated, based on taxpayer-funded studies conducted by Harvard and Brigham Young University. But when an EPA advisory panel asked to review the studies, it was denied.

Later, Congress also asked for access to the studies. It too was refused. So, in 1998, it passed a law requiring that scientific data used by the EPA to make rules be released to the public. But, a federal judge threw out that law. In 2013 it subpoenaed the information. The EPA still refused.

Finally, the House of Representatives passed three separate bills to stop the EPA from making regulations based on science that is unavailable to the public. None of these became law. So, after the EPA sandbagged the American public for a quarter of a century, Pruitt finally corrected the situation himself.

He signed a directive that the EPA cannot make any rules based on science that it is unwilling to release to the public. The era of “secret science” is over, at least for now.

There are more good things happening at the EPA besides these. But just knowing about these three changes ought to assure the reader that improvement in government can and does happen from time to time. Kudos to Scott Pruitt for his work at the EPA.

Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at


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