The ad raises the issue of abuse of power, so let’s talk about that.
Abuse of power is when a company lies to its investors and the public about climate change impacts and engages on a decades-long campaign of spreading disinformation to the public and decision makers, despite being at the cutting edge of climate science research back in the 1960s. It’s not about ExxonMobil having first amendment rights (as it has claimed), it’s about whether or not the company has committed fraud. The ongoing investigations by attorneys general will determine the answer.
Perhaps not coincidentally, this ad appeared just before the upcoming annual shareholders’ meetings of ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Shell, where investors will have the opportunity to ask each company’s leadership about its climate position and policy activities, and to vote on proposals that would hold companies more accountable on their political activities around climate change.
Abuse of power is when a company exploits its vast political network to squash policies that would address climate change. Through the funding of trade associations, think tanks, lobby shops, and individuals with scientific credentials, fossil fuel interests have funneled money into political fights in order to undermine efforts to combat climate change. The Western States Petroleum Association, for example, last year launched an aggressive misinformation campaign to undermine California’s Energy Act and the trade group did so with the backing of its members including ExxonMobil, Chevron, Shell, ConocoPhillips, and BP. These companies are able to work behind the scenes to influence policies through such third-party groups, while maintaining public positions supporting climate action.
Abuse of power is when a company has the audacity to claim it never lied in the first place and cry infringement on its scientific free speech rights when the company itself has worked for years to silence independent scientists. Despite overwhelming evidence that ExxonMobil knew about climate risks and chose to spread misinformation about climate science for decades, the company now inexplicably claims it has always accepted climate science. Beyond that, ExxonMobil, even in recent years, has funded climate contrarian scientists to challenge the overwhelming consensus of scientists on climate change.
To be clear, this isn’t about the first amendment to the US Constitution. As a letter recently signed by 20 legal scholars states, the First Amendment does not protect a defendant from potential liability for false and misleading statements in a commercial context, or from liability for fraud. The First Amendment does not preclude civil liability for deceptive or misleading statements by a commercial entity, even when statements concern contentious political issues.
Abuse of power is when a member of Congress abuses his subpoena power to intimidate scientists. Chairman Lamar Smith of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee was granted subpoena power last year and has already wielded it several times to target scientists researching climate change—both scientists within the government and at academic institutions. Despite no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of scientists, Chairman Smith has abused his position of power to intimidate and harass climate scientists who have produced science he doesn’t like.
And abuse of power is when a company, industry group, or politician wields its outsized political resources to silence the voices of the millions of Americans—and many more worldwide—who want action on climate change and are affected by its impacts. Fossil fuel interests can and do spend tremendous sums of money in our political system to lobby, donate to candidates, and support politically active organizations to undermine climate policies, often behind a veil of secrecy. In the end, it is this outsized influence that drowns out the people and threatens our democracy. This is truly an abuse of power.
The CEI ad lists endorsers of its position but a closer look reveals this is simply a list of the usual suspects when it comes to climate change denial and obstruction of climate policies. We are observing ExxonMobil and the climate denial echo chamber begin to feel the heat as pressure builds from the legal community, decision makers, the media, scientists, and the public to hold ExxonMobil accountable for its deception on climate change. When we talk about abuse of power, we should start here.
UPDATE, 5/20/2016: A new analysis from the Climate Investigations Center has found that the supporters listed on the CEI New York Times ad have cumulatively received $10.1 million dollars from Exxon, ExxonMobil, and the ExxonMobil Foundation from 1997 through 2014. Further, three of the signatories—Myron Ebell, Steve Milloy, and David Rothbard—were part of the 1998 Global Climate Science Communications Team convened by the American Petroleum Institute. As discussed in the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate Deception Dossiers report, a leaked 1998 memo from this group showed its plan to cast doubt on the public’s understanding of climate science. These new findings further show that the ad’s supporters are simply the usual actors when it comes to Exxon-funded climate denial.
UPDATE, 5/23/2016: For more on Chairman Lamar Smith’s abuse of power, check out Union of Concerned Scientists’ President Ken Kimmell’s blog on Chairman Smith’s request for UCS documents.]]>
In the new case, CLF will argue that given this knowledge of climate change and its impacts, ExxonMobil should have prepared its facilities, specifically an oil storage and transfer station in Everett, Massachusetts. The Everett Terminal has in the past been charged under the Clean Water Act for oil spills into the Mystic River and surrounding communities. Knowing this recent history and knowing about the predicted rising seas and greater frequency of high rainfall events, ExxonMobil should have fortified its facilities here, CLF says. Failing to do so exposes Exxon’s investors to financial risk and exposes the surrounding communities to a very tangible risk of spills, leaks, and explosions in their backyards.
The answer is that we might not know because of the lack of transparency around companies’ risk disclosures. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the federal agency responsible for overseeing public companies, issued landmark guidance in 2010 asking companies to disclose climate-related risks to their investors. The SEC wrote, “Significant physical effects of climate change …. Have the potential to have a material effect on … business and operations… They can include the impact of changes in weather patterns, such as increases in storm intensity [and] sea level rise.”
Since the SEC wrote those words, more scientific research has found connections between climate change and the proportion of more intense storms in the North Atlantic basin, and that climate change will lead to more extreme precipitation events (i.e. downpours), especially in the Northeast US.
When it comes to disclosing climate risks, ExxonMobil doesn’t lead the pack. This was my finding in a 2014 Union of Concerned Scientists report, Stormy Seas, Rising Risks, that looked at oil companies’ disclosure of climate risks at refineries. ExxonMobil doesn’t disclose any substantive information to its investors through the SEC on physical climate risk. But what we can look at is the vulnerability of ExxonMobil’s facilities and how they’ve fared in past weather events.
Boasting more than 5 million barrels per calendar day in crude-refining capacity, Exxon Mobil is the largest refiner in the world. In the 2014 report, we modeled ExxonMobil’s Baytown complex (above), the largest petroleum and petrochemical complex in the US. We found that even a Category 1 storm could inundate parts of the facility, with a Category 3 storm having the potential to leave some infrastructure under 15 feet of water. On top of that, sea level rise will only worsen such impacts, we found.
In 2005, Hurricane Rita caused both Exxon’s Baytown and Beaumont facilities to shut down. Hurricane Katrina also caused major damage to the Chalmette Refinery, causing it to shut down for many months. With continued sea level rise as well as potential increases in storm intensity as the climate warms, future shutdowns are likely.
Despite the vulnerable placement of these facilities and others, Exxon Mobil has not reported physical risks from climate change impacts to the SEC. Though the company’s SEC filings have noted that “hurricanes may damage our offshore production facilities or coastal refining and petrochemical plants in vulnerable areas,” the only direct reference to climate-related risks discussed climate regulations.
With these findings in hand, the Union of Concerned Scientists, along with Ceres and several investors, sent a letter to ExxonMobil asking about this lack of transparency; the company wrote us back, citing their (very limited) discussion of physical climate risk in their Corporate Citizenship report and their contribution to an industry climate risk adaptation report.
If Exxon is thinking about and preparing for climate-related risks in these venues, why not share it with their shareholders and share it with nearby communities like Everett?
As a result of this lack of transparency, we don’t know whether ExxonMobil has prepared its Everett facility for climate impacts, as CLF claims it hasn’t. Without further information disclosed from companies and without stronger demands from the SEC and investors for this information to be shared, it is difficult for us to know whether companies have sufficiently prepared for risks presented by sea level rise and extreme rain events. We need greater transparency from companies and greater consideration of climate-related risks.
When companies fail to disclose and prepare for climate change, others will feel the impact. Investors are exposed to undue financial risk. The public pays at the pump when refineries are shut down. And the public pays again in their tax dollars when the government needs to fund loans and cleanups. And nearby communities like Everett pay when they are exposed to harm from facility spills, accidents, and other damages. Companies owe it to these people to be more responsible corporate actors; they should consider, disclose, and prepare for the impacts of climate change.
In the five months you’ve been on this Earth, I already love you more than I can describe in words. I want nothing but a perfectly happy life for you, a life with every opportunity possible. I’m working hard to make sure you have those opportunities.
I can already tell that you’ll be a curious kid like I was. This is what led me to science. I wanted to understand how the world works and how I could make it better. I first learned about climate change as a college student. It wasn’t a popular subject yet. I took a class called Global Warming with only eight other students in it. It was there that I learned about the scary impacts that climate change might have, how it would affect my future, and of greater concern, how it would affect yours.
You might see rising seas, severe droughts, more wildfires, and fewer snow days. It makes me sad to think that leaders of your generation will have to deal with these issues. Your generation will have to make tough decisions about equity, management of resources and a changing climate. I’m saddened to think this will ever cause you stress.
After I became a scientist, I left academia and took a job at a nonprofit so I could make sure that my technical training would help to make the world a safer and better place. The reduced pay and less time spent on the science I loved is worth it because I know what I’m doing is the best I can do to give you a better future.
When you are older, I’ll tell you that I tried. I tried to communicate climate science to the public and to decision-makers. I tried to work on the solutions and develop ways that our society can mitigate climate change and adapt to its impacts. And I tried to hold accountable those most responsible for causing climate change. I did everything I could to make sure that my generation addressed climate change. I hope that I am able to leave a better world for you and I’ll devote the rest of my life trying because I know that you’re worth it.
You’re worth it because when you’re older, I don’t want to explain to you why there’s no more ice in the Arctic. I don’t want to explain to you why entire nations have had to move from their homes when their communities went underwater. And I don’t want to explain to you why there are fewer species on the planet than there were when I was a kid. When you look at me with those big beautiful eyes and that innocent smile, you make me want to fight harder. And I do. I try to do everything in my power to make sure your life stays as happy as you are right now.
When you were just two weeks old, world leaders left Paris with a new global agreement. It was an agreement to address climate change in a bigger way than had ever been done before. It might not be enough, but my hope is that you will only live to see a world where that agreement is the smallest step society has taken to address climate change.
(This post is my contribution to DearTomorrow‘s Mother’s Day campaign, which is collecting letters, photos and videos about climate change and action for our children and future generations through a joint collaboration with Moms Clean Air Force and The Solutions Project. You can submit your own message to the future at deartomorrow.org.)]]>
Unfortunately, this is more than an interesting historical tidbit. ExxonMobil continues to play a role in promoting misinformation about climate change and obstructing efforts to address it. It’s worth reiterating what the oil and petrochemical giant is doing today to impede climate progress.
While a cursory look at its website shows that ExxonMobil now admits that, “The risk of climate change is clear and the risk warrants action,” the company’s current activities continue to tell a different story. Even if we set aside the long, deceptive history of ExxonMobil’s climate denial campaign, there are many very recent actions that ExxonMobil has taken to misrepresent or undermine climate science, as outlined recently in a well-documented report by MIT and Harvard researchers Ploy Achakulwisut, Ben Scandella, Geoffrey Supran, and Britta Voss. Here’s a sampling of that misinformation, focusing on ExxonMobil statements and actions from 2014 to present.
Despite Exxon’s science-supported position statement on climate change on its website, the company continues to spout misinformation on the topic. In a recent post, ExxonMobil Vice President of Public and Government Affairs Suzanne McCarron said the idea that ExxonMobil “reached definitive conclusions about anthropogenic climate change before the world’s experts” and concealed the information from the public was “preposterous”.
McCarron’s predecessor Ken Cohen made similar statements in a 2015 blog post, “As you can see, the scientific community that contributes to the IPCC report is, even today, still projecting a broad range of potential outcomes.” Further, Cohen notes, “This should refute the claim, central to activists’ conspiracy theories, that anyone had reached a firm conclusion about catastrophic impacts of climate change back in the 1970’s and 80’s.”
To the contrary, scientific consensus on climate change and its impacts has been building since at least the 1970s. Despite extraordinarily broad consensus in the scientific community that burning fossil fuels is driving climate change, the high degree of accuracy with which climate models have predicted current warming, and general agreement in global climate models on future climate scenarios, Cohen here misleadingly overemphasizes the uncertainty associated with global climate modeling in the most recent IPCC assessment. Further, he ignores the fact that climate prediction is primarily dependent on how quickly and how substantially carbon emitters—like ExxonMobil—are required to reduce their emissions in the future.
ExxonMobil is also responding to its own investors’ climate change concerns by doubling down on its misguided claim that the solutions needed to limit warming to less than 2 degrees are “unlikely” to materialize. Such rhetoric feels conspicuously out of touch in the wake of 175 countries committing to reach this very goal last Month. ExxonMobil’s dismissiveness to shareholder concerns also stands in contrast to commitments made by BP and Shell less than a year ago to improve disclosure of their respective climate risks to shareholders.
Moreover, at the 2015 Annual Meeting of Shareholders, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson overemphasized the uncertainty associated with global climate models to the point of assuming they had no predictive value. As Tillerson stated:
“…It’s interesting that if you examine the most recent publication of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change…one of the things we look into carefully every year is, ‘What level of progress has been made in the competency of those models to predict the future?’ And if you look at those reports, what you see is an extraordinarily broad range of predictive outcomes.”
“We don’t really know what the climate effects of 600 ppm versus 450 ppm will be because the models simply are not that good…they will get better…we anticipate, we hope that the competencies of the models begin to close and therefore you can have a higher confidence around the outcome.”
As noted in a recent report by climate researchers at MIT and Harvard, these statements are in direct contrast to the IPCC’s latest assessment, which demonstrates that a world of 450 ppm and one of 600 ppm of CO2-equivalent emissions by 2100 come from distinctly different emissions pathways. In other words, scientists can show that these two concentrations have “substantially different likelihoods of [global temperature] staying below 2°C over the twenty-first century.” Tillerson’s reference to “an extraordinarily broad range of predictive outcomes” falsely implies that the diversity of future scenarios predicted by global climate models is due to model uncertainty. In fact, the diversity of projected climate futures largely reflects different climate action decisions that our society might choose to make (for example, what the future climate will look like with carbon emissions of business as usual, compared to the future climate with a meaningful global agreement that substantially cuts emissions).
ExxonMobil continues to play a leading role in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). As explained in the 2015 Union of Concerned Scientists report, The Climate Deception Dossiers, ALEC is well known for peddling disinformation about climate science to its state legislator members, many of whom go on to hold higher offices. Shortly after this report came out last summer, ExxonMobil once again sponsored ALEC’s annual meeting. At one of the few sessions open to reporters, state legislators were told that, “The biggest scam of the last 100 years is global warming.”
ALEC’s controversial positions on climate change have sent other oil majors running for the door, including BP and Shell just last year. Shell’s departure came months after its CEO said, “Let me be very very clear, climate change is real and it’s a threat that we need to act on. We’re not aligning with skeptics.”
Similarly, ExxonMobil claims to support a carbon tax, a policy approach that ALEC opposes. The company has also contributed significant sums of money to members of Congress who are on the record as opposing a climate tax, including one recent donation to Senator James Inhofe—an outspoken climate contrarian who famously stated that “…man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
We can’t ignore past behavior when assessing the credibility of a company. The burden of proof should be on the company to show their changed behavior. Given ExxonMobil’s rich history of organized and intentionally hidden denial campaigns, the company should demonstrate that it is no longer connected to climate misinformation in order to gain the public’s trust. The ongoing investigations by state Attorneys General will determine if ExxonMobil is responsible for any legal wrongdoing. In the meantime, we know for certain they are responsible for continuing to misrepresent climate science.]]>
Scientists have known for decades about the health effects of silica dust exposure, including silicosis, an irreversible and debilitating lung disease that can cause respiratory failure among other problems. Silica is widely used in the construction, food, pharmaceutical, and many other industries, and silicosis occurs when workers inhale the respirable crystalline silica dust that can get into the air.
Remarkably, none of this is new science. Back in the 1930s, the construction industry was conducting studies on exposure of workers to silica dust and the incidence of silicosis. In an infamous 1931 Gauley Bridge tunnel incident, hundreds of workers died of silicosis and it all could have been avoided if a “wet drilling” technique was used to keep the dust down. But doing so slowed the process, so the construction company only used it when inspectors were present.
Despite this overwhelming evidence of harm AND knowledge of how to prevent it, why weren’t such common-sense protections put in place sooner?
In 2013, my colleague Michael Halpern wrote that it could be years before the silica rule would be in place. He was right. He knew that delay by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) would slow progress on the rule, while workers continued to be needlessly exposed to silica dust and risk developing silicosis and other lung ailments.
In addition to this regulatory delay by OMB, we cannot overlook the role that industry has played in obstructing scientific understanding of the harms of silica and development of protections.
The chemical industry has long fought the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on regulation of silica. In his comprehensive book Doubt is Their Product, epidemiologist and OSHA head David Michaels observed, “In virtually every instance in which a federal regulatory agency proposes protecting the public’s health by reducing the allowable exposure to a toxic product, the regulated industry hires scientists to dispute the science on which the proposal is based.”
Indeed, this was the case with silica. The chemical industry engaged on a decades-long fight to cast doubt on the health effects linked to silica exposure. While thousands of exposed workers developed silicosis and died, the industry hired firms to run counter analyses to suggest no link between silica exposure and silicosis.
In 2013, OSHA proposed to tighten the silica standard. Several industry players, including the American Chemistry Council (ACC) and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly opposed the proposal, citing financial impacts and technical challenges and questioning the science on which the proposal was based.
In response to the proposed rule, the American Chemistry Council testified in a hearing in 2014, challenging the scientific basis for the rule. Despite longstanding and numerous studies demonstrating the public health dangers of silica, the trade group inexplicably asserted that the strong scientific evidence was “not trustworthy” and “not ready for prime time”. The Crystalline Panel division of the ACC released a statement calling itself “committed to the prevention of adverse health effects” resulting from respirable silica dust, despite also noting that the panel does “not believe there is a need for a new crystalline silica standard”.
The influence of industry in the process made such an impact that OSHA took an unprecedented step: in a move the first of its kind, the agency asked anyone submitting public comments on the silica rule to disclose financial ties and any conflicts of interest, a great step toward greater transparency around who is influencing a rulemaking process.
With a new rule finally in place, OSHA and others who fought the good fight to get this rule passed should take a bow and celebrate. This was a hard battle but they’ve won. Now countless workers will be protected from risking sickness and death from needless exposure to silica dust.
Unfortunately, proponents may not have time to relax. Members of Congress at today’s hearing were questioning the science that the rule is based on. Despite decades’ worth of science, politics continue. But for now, the science finally prevails.]]>
Last week I attended a half-day event put on by Scientific American. The topic was media coverage of scientific topics and the “elephant” was the event’s corporate sponsorship. The sponsors were Johnson & Johnson and GMO Answers, a website funded by The Council for Biotechnology Information, which includes leading agricultural companies such as BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont, Monsanto, and Syngenta. GMO Answers is run by Ketchum, the public relations firm known for its work promoting the agriculture industry. Many on social media expressed disapproval with the funding of the event. How could Scientific American host such a biased event? many wondered. But is the sponsorship of such an event inherently problematic? The discussion raised questions about the appropriate role of private sector funding for scientific events and for scientific research. Let’s dive into the challenges of private sector funding of science. Here goes.
First and foremost, funding sources for scientific events, conferences, and research should be disclosed publicly in a clear and obvious location. This is a given. Scientific journals routinely ask authors to disclose real or perceived conflicts of interest and to list funders in acknowledgements. These are excellent places to disclose all funding sources and the scientific community expects this. And notably, there are consequences for scientists who don’t and are discovered, as we’ve seen on everything from hydraulic fracturing research to climate change contrarians to doctors’ pharmaceutical connections.
At the event I attended last week, at least one journalist who spoke claimed he didn’t learn of GMO Answers’ sponsorship until after agreeing to participate. This is inappropriate. Potential participants should know about the sponsorship up front before judging their interest in participating. (Note: Scientific American claimed this was unintentional.) To that end, journalists also should disclose any compensation they’ve received for participation in such events.
Provided we know about funding sources, how should the resulting science be judged? Should we assume corporate-funded science is tainted? Biased? Incorrect? It depends on the context. At a minimum, science should be subject to a greater level of scrutiny if it receives funding from an industry with direct interests in the implications of that science. Would you trust a study funded by the tobacco industry that touted health benefits of smoking? Of course not. (The University of Maryland, for example, learned this lesson recently on its reporting of a shoddy study promoting the medical benefits of chocolate milk for concussion recovery. The research was sponsored by the very brand of chocolate milk being studied—what odds!).
What would greater scrutiny mean for such science? It means that to trust the science produced, we would expect the research to follow best practices for ensuring the independence of the science: Strong external peer review from scientists who have no conflict of interest, disclosure of all financial ties, public availability of methods and, where appropriate data, and no manipulation of results or messaging for corporate (organizational) purposes.
But funding relationships aren’t necessarily problematic. Private sector funding can be routed through a neutral third party to insulate the science from inappropriate influence. The Health Effects Institute, for example, is a nonprofit that allocates and oversees research funds from the motor vehicle industry and the EPA to academic researchers studying the health impacts of air pollution. Corporations can name buildings, support student scholarships, and sponsor events in ways that are less likely to have direct impact on the quality of science. These actions do, however, undoubtedly influence people, if immeasurably, and they lend science credibility and access to the funding agent. (Perhaps a subject for a future blog…)
Further, the nature of the relationship matters, and this should also be disclosed. An arrangement where the sponsor has control over how the study is conducted or what results get published (or the ability to review as in the case of Willie Soon’s ExxonMobil funding) is far more problematic than an unattached grant where a scientist is free to conduct and publish the research as they see fit and free to name the funder.
Good science can have industry funding. However, researchers who accept direct money from financial interests in the areas in which they work shouldn’t be surprised if their work is subject to greater scrutiny. And importantly, they should proactively disclose that funding. It could be exemplary science, but we can’t forget the past and current activities of some industries when it comes to funding science.
Many private sector actors have demonstrated time and again their inability to respect science and play by its rules. The sugar and corn syrup industry have paid seemingly independent scientists to spout industry talking points without disclosing their affiliation to the industry. The chemical industry has paid consultants to conduct intentionally misleading studies to hide the health impacts of its chemicals, while countless people die because the chemicals go unregulated. And it was recently revealed that the NFL used incomplete data sets to obscure the relationship between concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
For many people (and I’d include myself here), these actors have abdicated any right for us to assume they are acting in good faith. The burden of proof should be on these industries to demonstrate they are following independent science protocols in order to regain the public trust. In some cases, entire industries have had their social license to operate revoked. As the most prominent example, any science affiliated with the tobacco industry is no longer considered credible by most.
Increasingly, the fossil fuel industry is being stigmatized in the same way. Investors are weary of the industry’s political activities around climate change, an ever increasing list of state attorney generals are investigating oil companies for deceiving the public about their products, and scientists are telling the largest society of earth scientists in the world that they don’t want ExxonMobil to sponsor their conference.
Many have argued that corporate funding allows research that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. It’s true. As government grants get increasingly competitive and public science funding decreases, researchers are strapped to find funds to support their work, especially in light of academic pressures to bring dollars to their university. For individual studies and events, scientists and institutions must decide if industry money is worthwhile and in what capacity.
I thought the Scientific American event was an interesting and substantive conversation on science communication. For example, the journalist panel had an enlightening discussion on if and how to cover those with misinformed views on a scientific topic (e.g. prominent voices with anti-vaccination views), whether their coverage would lend credibility to misinformation, and how to provide tools to their audience to judge the credibility of their sources. But online the conversation instead turned to the “industry taint” of the event rather than its content. If the goal of the event was to have an honest conversation on the challenges of portraying scientific topics in the media (and we might speculate on whether or not that was the goal), was the added funding from GMO Answers and Johnson & Johnson worth it?
As scientists and as consumers of scientific information, we must judge for ourselves what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to private sector funding of science. We must demand transparency around funding sources and funding relationships so we have the full picture with which to judge. And we must hold actors accountable when we find inappropriate funding relationships. This, unfortunately, will mean that we’ll often have to deal with a lot of elephants in the room.
The 2011 version of the USDA scientific integrity policy had some shortcomings. Namely, the policy failed to address many of the guidelines put forth in the December 2010 scientific integrity directive from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
It failed to include two key tenets of scientific free speech: It didn’t grant scientists the “right of last review” on materials publicly released in their name or that significantly relied on their work. And it didn’t provide a “personal views exception”, which would allow scientists to express their personal views on a topic (including views on policy), provided they make clear that they are not speaking for their agency. (For more on why scientists need personal views exceptions in government agency policies, see my previous blog here.)
Also of concern, the policy didn’t contain many specifics about who is responsible and how the stated policies would be implemented. Importantly, the details of this policy didn’t matter much in any event, since the policy expired on August 5, 2012, one year after its issuance.
The 2013 update to the USDA scientific integrity policy makes improvements. First off, it removes any time limitation for its relevance. It also adds significantly more detail about who is responsible for carrying out which aspects of the policy. The new policy creates a USDA Departmental Scientific Integrity Officer and requires each agency within the USDA to appoint an agency level scientific integrity officer. These are important efforts for creating the structure and mechanisms to carry out the principles of the policy.
The policy also adds a few new provisions, including one protecting whistleblowers. The policy states that the Department policy is to:
Protect those who uncover and report allegations of research misconduct or other violations of scientific integrity, as well as those accused of research misconduct or other violations of scientific integrity in the absence of a finding of misconduct, from prohibited personnel practices (as defined in 5 U.S.C. 2302(b));
It is great to see the USDA add this provision to protect not only those who report scientific integrity breaches but also those accused, if no misconduct is found. This is important as we know that scientific integrity cases are often complicated and some may be wrongly accused.
Other new provisions to the USDA policy were less positive. A new provision now states that the department policy is to (emphasis mine):
(2) Ensure that scientists may communicate their findings without political interference or inappropriate influence, while at the same time complying with USDA policies and procedures for planning and conducting scientific activities, reporting scientific findings, and reviewing and releasing scientific products. Such communications include research on policy-related issues when appropriate to the role of the agency and scientist; however, the scientists should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of or recommendations on USDA or any other federal government policy, either intentionally or inadvertently. Communications on such matters should remain within the bounds of their scientific findings. Such scientific and technical communications for non-USDA media (e.g., manuscripts and presentations for scientific journals, workshops, conferences, and symposia) should follow agency technical review procedures and do not generally require review above the agency level.
It is good to see the USDA explicitly prohibit “political interference and inappropriate influence” over scientists’ communication of their work, as we know these are often the source of scientific integrity problems.
The second bolded area raises questions about USDA scientists’ ability to express their personal views. The policy appears to prohibit scientists from speaking on anything outside of their scientific findings, regardless of whether they clarify if they are speaking in their personal capacity. Instead of including such restrictive language, the USDA could have allowed scientists to express personal views with a disclaimer that they are not speaking on behalf of their agency.
Indeed, other federal agencies have effectively dealt with this issue within their scientific integrity policies. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, for example, clearly articulates scientists’ right to express their personal views in its policy. The NOAA Scientific Integrity Policy states:
NOAA scientists are free to present viewpoints, for example about policy or management matters, that extend beyond their scientific findings to incorporate their expert or personal opinions, but in doing so they must make clear that they are presenting their individual opinions- not the views of the Department of Commerce or NOAA.
So how is this new USDA policy working now that it has been in effect for a few years? We know from past UCS work that policies don’t always match practices. Agencies can have great agency culture that protects scientists without relying on a policy. And on the other hand, agencies can have wonderful policies in place that simply aren’t implemented. The only way to know is to hear from scientists inside the agency.
In 2012, the Union of Concerned Scientists conducted a survey of federal scientists within its Science Network. Though not comprehensive in nature, the survey yielded some interesting anecdotes suggesting that USDA scientific integrity and communications policies may not be living up to their intentions.
“The policies are written so vaguely that the [USDA] can and does suppress papers that may be inconvenient for other government agencies and industry.” — Anonymous USDA scientist, 2012
“ ‘Loose lips sink ships’ appears to be management’s motivation.” — Anonymous USDA scientist on the agency’s social media policy, 2012
To be fair, this survey did not account for the 2013 updates to the USDA policy. What do we know about how the policy is being implemented currently? We can look to more recent cases for that.
As reported in the Washington Post and elsewhere, former USDA scientist Jonathan Lundgren, who recently left the agency, has filed as a whistleblower, claiming the USDA suppressed his research, which focuses on pesticide use and its impacts. Lundgren was a Senior Research Entomologist and Lab Supervisor for the USDA Agriculture Research Service. Among other complaints, Lundgren says that USDA disciplined him in retaliation for speaking publicly about his research and has stifled his ability to publish and talk to the media. When USDA dismissed his complaint, Lundgren appealed. In response, an internal Scientific Integrity Review Panel was convened and concluded that “the allegation was unsubstantiated and there was not a preponderance of evidence to establish that the USDA [scientific integrity policy] was violated.” Then in February, the USDA Inspector General Phyllis Fong announced that she would be opening an investigation into the high volume of allegations around scientific integrity the department has been seeing, including Lundgren’s case.
Without getting into the details of the allegations, its worth looking at the degree to which the USDA scientific integrity policy is or isn’t equipped to address these kinds of issues. For one, the lack of clear guidance on if and how employees might express their personal views leaves scientists like Lundgren vulnerable if they choose to speak about research that might have policy implications or otherwise be controversial. The provision that “scientists should refrain from making statements that could be construed as being judgments of … USDA” casts a fairly wide net under which the agency could claim scientists acted inappropriately.
Second, Lundgren’s case shows that the department hadn’t fully developed how it would handle scientific integrity accusations and appeals. Interestingly, the USDA scientific integrity policy update did add a provision on protection of whistleblowers and did add significant language on how such policies would be carried out. Note the above figure from the USDA Scientific Integrity Policy Handbook. But it appears some of this procedural language hasn’t been fully implemented, at least in Lundgren’s case.
PEER also finds shortcomings in the policy. The group filed a petition for rulemaking at the agency asking it to revise its scientific integrity policy to include more clarity on handling scientific misconduct cases.
Regardless of how Lundgren’s case evolves, it highlights an important challenge at the USDA: How do you clearly and consistently implement a policy through a large and geographically dispersed agency? My past analysis of scientific integrity across the government suggests that these agencies may have more difficulty with policy implementation than those that are more centralized.
This case also reminds us that policies are easier to change than culture. Agencies can improve their policies on paper, but the work doesn’t stop there. Agencies need to take steps to facilitate a change in practices across the agency to ensure they are consistent with the new policy. Agency leadership must make clear to employees that scientific integrity is valued and that the agency takes the policy seriously. If this type of positive reinforcement isn’t consistently applied, employees are apt to forget or revert back to practices under past administrations when scientific integrity wasn’t a priority.
The Obama Administration has made strides in promoting the importance of scientific integrity across the government, but we still have a ways to go before the scientific integrity policies are effectively implemented at the USDA and elsewhere.]]>
What I have found even more remarkable is that Lovelace conquered this feat when she had a lot more going on. In the midst of her pursuit of mathematics, Lovelace also bore three children. During the years she had children, she had to step away from her studies. This was true especially after the birth of her second child, when she fell ill for several months. This hiatus from her mathematics work no doubt took a toll on her scientific progress. And it’s worth noting that Lovelace was affluent and thus, likely had more resources to help her manage children and a career than would have been available to most women at the time.
As I return from four months of maternity leave this month, I am even more appreciative of the tremendous challenge of doing science while meeting demanding family commitments. I was lucky to get the time off to care for my newborn, but many others aren’t so fortunate today. And even if new parents do get time off from work, scientific institutions aren’t necessarily forgiving of this time away from the lab bench.
Scientists in academia and elsewhere are judged by productivity. A year or several without publications can have implications for one’s standing in the scientific community. Assistant professors are “on the clock” before they get tenure, and must demonstrate their productivity in their first years on the job. Having children during this crucial time period can limit the amount of work scientists—especially mothers—get done. Today, science and engineering departments in American universities are still predominantly male, despite roughly equal numbers of STEM PhDs awarded to female and male students. While the reasons women choose to leave academia are complex and varied, the pressure to get tenure during the times women would want to start a family is often cited.
While on my maternity leave, I met another new mom who was a research scientist at a nearby university. She talked about all of the work she had to do even though she was officially on leave—incorporating peer-review edits, reviewing papers for others, reacting to emails, etc. She said if she’d known about the constant time demands of science, she might of have chosen a different career path.
We need to do better. The challenges that Ada Lovelace faced trying to raise children and be a scientist in the 19th century are disturbingly similar to the challenges faced by parents today, especially for women who tend to bare the greatest parenting burdens.
What can we do? We need to create a culture that is not only tolerant of scientists’ who want a work-life balance, but helps them to thrive. Better leave policies at both public and private institutions would be a great start. When academic scientists are up for tenure or applying for jobs, awards, and fellowships, selection committees should take into account any children had during that time period. This type of consideration, along with other family friendly policies, is more customary in many European countries. The US needs to catch up.
This month, the Royal Society launched the #AndAScientist campaign to highlight scientists who are also parents or caregivers. With a goal to create a more inclusive environment in the sciences, the campaign highlights stories of scientists who have time-consuming family commitments outside of work and also continue to produce science. Campaigns like this can help shine a light on the issue and hopefully change the conversation. But we also need policies to follow.
In the meantime, and as I settle back into work life, I’m especially aware that I’m now a mother and a scientist.]]>
To date, discussion of candidates for the 2016 presidential election has focused a lot on money. Who is being influenced by corporate interests? Which candidate’s policy positions are based on who is writing them checks? And who is “independent”? To be sure, concerns about corporate funding of presidential candidates are more than a century old, but recently they’ve reached new heights. The 2012 election cycle was the most expensive ever and 2016 is poised to shatter it. To date, $6.75 million in secret money has been spent in the 2016 election cycle compared to $4.84 million spent at this point in the 2012 cycle.
While the problem might seem insurmountable, President Obama can take steps that would go a long way. In fact, the President used his recent State of the Union address to highlight the problems associated with money in politics. “[D]emocracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest,” he stated. He then went on to assert, “We have to reduce the influence of money in our politics, so that a handful of families and hidden interests can’t bankroll our elections.”
Now I’m thrilled to see that President Obama may act on these words and issue an executive order asking companies that bid on contracts with the federal government to disclose their political spending. And that’s not a small sampling of companies; a Public Citizen study found that such a rule would apply to 70 of Fortune 100 companies, including fossil fuel giants like ExxonMobil and Chevron, and industrial heavy hitters like Dow and General Electric.
But the President faces opposition. Trade groups, in particular, fear they’ll lose their funding. In a letter obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, the CEOs of the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the Business Roundtable told their member companies to resist pressure to disclose their political spending.
Why are they so fearful? Currently, trade groups operate in a sweet spot. They can lobby without limit as long as lobbying is not their primary purpose and they don’t have to disclose their funding sources. For companies, this is a great deal. Companies can outsource their political activities to their business and trade associations, who can in turn lobby aggressively with those corporate dollars. Trade groups are able to do the political dirty work, taking positions that companies might not be willing to stand behind publicly.
And we know companies don’t always agree with their trade groups. A 2014 Union of Concerned Scientists report found that the majority of board members of the US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers don’t publicly agree with those groups’ positions on climate change. Yet, as board members, these companies are able to maintain climate-friendly public images, while privately funding these business groups to undermine policy efforts to address climate change.
The US Chamber and other business and trade associations are worried that if companies had to publicly disclose their payments to them, these groups would lose donations. But such payments should be public. Americans deserve to know who is influencing their policymakers. As the 2016 election is demonstrating, the stakes (and dollars) are higher than ever. The more secret money that flows to political candidates, the less accountable our elected leaders are to the American people. We can do better as a nation and President Obama knows it too. An executive order on corporate political disclosure brings us a step closer to an accountable, transparent democracy.]]>
A newly released document now confirms that FWS scientists disagreed with FWS leadership on its decision not to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act. Last year, I wrote about this decision when a leaked memo showed FWS leadership choosing not to list the species, despite concerns from scientists about how climate change and potential lessening of snowpack would affect wolverine populations in the northern mountain states.
The new document—that the Union of Concerned Scientists obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the FWS—is a memo from the Assistant Regional Director of Ecological Services in FWS Region 6 detailing the region’s scientific recommendation and justification for the wolverine needing federal protection. The memo states that based on the best-available science, “The Montana Field Office recommends that the wolverine listing be finalized as threatened under the [Endangered Species] Act.”
The revelation raises questions about whether the agency’s decision not to list the species, despite this recommendation from its own scientists, was based on science, as the Endangered Species Act requires. Specifically, the Act states that “the Secretary [of the Interior or of Commerce] shall make determinations … solely on the basis of the best scientific and commercial data available…”
In another recent case, the FWS chose to delist gray wolves nationwide, ignoring the best available science coming from the independent scientific community. The FWS claimed that most of the nation was unsuitable for wolves due to “…a lack of tolerance of wolves…”. Yet a review of >100 articles on the science of tolerance for wolves does not support the claim and a summary of the literature commissioned by the FWS itself did not support the claim.
The scientific opinion of the Montana Office in the case of the wolverine and the opinions in the broader scientific community in the case of wolves were not heeded in the two cases described above. Was there additional scientific information that went into the FWS’ decision not to list the wolverine or the decision to delist the wolf? And importantly, why are the bases for this FWS decisions still unclear more than a year later? These unanswered questions demonstrate the need for an improved process for endangered species determinations at the FWS.
A growing group of scientists have signed onto a letter asking the Department of the Interior (DOI) and the Department of Commerce (DOC) to follow a process for obtaining independent scientific advice on listing and delisting decisions under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The scientists’ letter outlines how the ESA mandate for best available science could be respected by relying on external, independent scientific input, without interference from non-scientists.
Specifically, the scientists are asking the DOI and DOC to entrust the scientific evaluation of species listing and de-listing determinations to an external committee of scientists who are best suited to assess the scientific evidence and make a public recommendation to the agency, based solely on the scientific and commercial data available, as the ESA requires.
Such a process makes a lot of sense. It could be implemented by the federal agencies without requiring changes to the law and it would enable the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administation to focus on implementing the ESA. The proposal would also provide the public with a better understanding of how species listing decisions are made at the agency, increasing transparency and accountability for such decisions. This could lead to less political interference in what should be science-based decisions on endangered species.
A recent survey of scientists at the FWS conducted by the Union of Concerned Scientists finds that such a proposal might address some concerns among agency scientists. Seventy-three percent of respondents (601 scientists) felt that consideration of political interests was too high at FWS. When asked what would most improve scientific integrity at the FWS, one scientist suggested, “clear documentation on what standards are being used to make recommendations and what standards are used in the final decision. For example, under the ESA the FWS is prohibited from considering economic considerations when making a listing recommendation. However, final decision makers are known to apply a political/industry filter to those decisions because of the perceived impact an ESA listing will have to a segment of the economy.”
Another respondent noticed a discrepancy between the level of science required to list vs. de-list a species. “Frequently, information on a particular issue (e.g., petition to list) must be overwhelming to decide to list a species, although downlisting or delisting does not have the same standard of overwhelming information to prove that a species has recovered.” A process for independent scientific advice as proposed above would seek to address these issues of political interference and inconsistent decision making within the agency.
It’s also worth noting that such a process is not unprecedented when it comes to science-based decision making at federal agencies. Take the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, which uses external Science Advisory Boards for making decisions on its rule making. The EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which I’ve written about extensively, assesses scientific understanding of ambient air pollutants and their health effects and makes recommendations to the agency on what air quality standards should be. This process creates a space for exclusive consideration of scientific evidence supporting a rule and it allows the public to observe scientific consensus-building.
Importantly, a standard, uniform process designed by the independent scientific community creates a separation between the scientific recommendation and the political decision that follows, allowing for accountability for the agencies’ decision. First, this gives the agency political cover if it does make a decision based on science and it allows the public to hold them accountable when they don’t. Why don’t the DOI and DOC enact a similar process for species listings?
Scientists are proposing a solution that allows independent science to better inform endangered species determinations and do so in a transparent and consistent way. Please join me in supporting better use of science to protect threatened species in the US.