From William J. Hirzy, Ph.D.
I'm writing this, on behalf of NTEU Chapter 280 and as a 16-year veteran
of the research bench, to our colleagues outside the EPA Headquarters
region, particularly to those who toil in the laboratory, to explain
why we Headquarters scientists consider the Principles of Scientific
Integrity so important as a working conditions issue.
When I worked as a research and process development chemist in the
private sector, I was almost always involved in research work that
had a specific, management-directed goal in mind - make a plasticizer
that won't mar polystyrene finishes on refrigerators, that won't
degrade to produce odors that will affect food flavors - make a non-toxic
plasticizer for blood bags that won't migrate into blood lipids, yet
forms a stable plasticized container system at all temperatures - develop
a manufacturing process for a phosphorus-based flame retardant that
won't blow up the plant, yet produces high-quality product at a cost
customers will bear, etc., etc. Management never told me to lie about
how well a plasticizer performed in an extraction test or whether it
marred a test surface. Management never told me to change the yield
figures to make process economics look good. They never had to. It
is obvious that faking it simply is not an option - as Richard Feynmann
put it when he investigated the Challenger disaster - " Mother Nature
will not be fooled."
Those of us who work at Headquarters mostly don't have the pleasure of
working at a research bench, asking Mother Nature questions, observing
her answers and then deciding what next to do: publish what we think
she is saying, if our confidence in our interpretation is high enough;
or go back and ask more questions until our understanding and confidence
are sufficient to publish. The way we deal with science at Headquarters
is quite different from that ideal.
There may be a court-ordered schedule of rule-making facing our Office
management, and it might involve setting what amounts to a "safe"
exposure level for humans or other species. On occasion, a manager
has his or her own idea of what that "safe" level should be, or the
manager gets orders from up the line, perhaps even the White House
or Capitol Hill, that the "safe" level is some particular value.
This is not hypothetical. This has happened and continues to happen.
The manager then comes to a staff scientist and says, "This is the
safe level that we are going to propose in the Federal Register.
Write me a justification for it." What is sometimes overtly stated,
sometimes not, is, "And I don't care what the literature says,
my bosses have given me instructions on this, and if you want to
stay on my good side, and if you want to see some award money, you
will craft for me an elegant justification for this 'safe' level."
This situation, while not always the norm, does happen. When the
literature does not support what management wants to do, it is a
gut-wrencher for ethical scientists whose work involves reading
the literature, making value judgments about the merits of the
published work of other scientists, and writing technical support
documents for Agency rule-making (or overseeing contractors who do that).
Certain statutes permit management to set "safe" levels based on
factors other than the physical and biological sciences, for example,
Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) for drinking water. MCLs are supposed
to be set as close as possible to the Maximum Contaminant Level
Goal (MCLG), which is supposed to be based solely on scientific
considerations of toxicity, but the MCL can be set at a different
level if economic, feasibility or other factors so indicate. We have
no quarrel with that situation - it is, after all, what the law passed
by Congress and signed by the President and adjudicated by the Courts,
mandates - it is a Constitutionally right-on situation, and we are
sworn to uphold the Constitution.
Where we do have a quarrel, however, is when management orders up a
phony MCLG so that a politically dictated MCL will have scientific
"cover" We do have a quarrel when management arranges it so that an
EPA toxicologist is prevented from attending a pathology review at
which all malignant tumors get down-graded so that an economically
important pesticide can achieve a lower cancer rating. And when
management collects data on indoor air pollutants within its own
buildings, conducts and publishes a major survey showing that its
own employees were sickened by the pollutants, privately (and to
the media) admits that those pollutants made the employees sick -
and then disavows these results and statements - all to protect
a large industry and avoid "getting involved in lawsuits," do we
ever have a quarrel. These are just a few high-profile, real-life
examples of what scientific integrity means B or doesn't mean
B at Headquarters.
We organized this union at Headquarters in the early 1980's to fight
just this sort of distorted use of science, which impinges negatively
on our working conditions, on our reputations, and ultimately on public
health. It took almost two decades and much blood and tears finally
to sway one set of senior EPA managers to acquiesce to establishing a
set of professional ethics for EPA scientists. Management chose to
call it Principles of Scientific Integrity.
But the job is not complete. There is no implementation plan for the
Principles of Scientific integrity, no agreed upon method of resolving
disputes that arise. We have filed two grievances, citing violations of
the Principles of Scientific Integrity, and both times management has
alleged that the grievance process doesn't reach to enforcing the
Principles. We can, and we may yet, test this allegation before an
arbitrator, but we are using another method too.
Our work with EPA Headquarters employees who have taken ethical
stands against distorted science has become public knowledge.
Citizens and groups outside the Agency have inquired about our work
with these employees and we have responded in ways that were useful
to these citizens. When EPA tried to strangle our union in the early
1990's we called upon those citizens for help in fighting off
management's attacks B and we were successful in a big way. We have
now called upon these citizens again, asking them for help in making
EPA see the need to make the Principles of Scientific Integrity more
than mere window dressing. This campaign began on May 1, 2002 B how
appropriate B and was triggered by the "2+2=7" incident, in which
a supervisor told a member of our bargaining unit, "Its your job
to support me, even if I say 2+2=7."
NTEU Chapter 280 seeks the advice of our fellow employees across
the Agency in developing plans to fully implement the Principles
of Scientific Integrity, which benefit every ethical EPA employee.
Please contact me with your ideas. Thanks in advance.
Bill Hirzy, Ph.D.
Dr. Hirzy asks that you contact your representatives immediately. You
can identify your representatives if you are not certain who they are,
and access all of their contact information, by merely entering your
zip code at
Dr. Hirzy would like to track how this call to action is progressing,
especially any responses from your representatives or the EPA administration.
You can bcc him or forward your statements and responses to:
Please note that this is not just about fluoridation. It is about
the entire foundation of how protective measures are determined and
incorporated throughout our entire nation.
We suggest old fashioned letters to both Congress and EPA.
At EPA, Ms. Whitman has no e-mail address accessible to the public,
and Mr. Winn may set his e-mail system to automatically delete messages
from citizens, especially if the title line mentions the union or
scientific integrity. Your representatives in Congress, however, will
not ignore you (even if you use e-mail), and EPA cannot ignore
inquiries from Congress. The pressure you bring to bear on EPA
through your Senators and Representative will be supremely valuable.
EPA's mailing address is: U.S. EPA, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave.,
N.W., Washington, D.C. 20460. If you wish to e-mail Mr. Winn anyway,
his e-mail address is: You may wish to send a
copy of any e-mail to Mr. Winn also to this
address: . Mr. Sharfstein is the head of
labor relations at EPA.