WASHINGTON, D.C.—Controversy has arisen over plans by the scientific arm of the Environmental Protection Agency to seek outside public relations counsel, at a budget of up to $5 million over five years, to enhance its website, organize focus groups on how to improve its image, and ghostwrite articles “for publication in scholarly journals and magazines.”
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has asked the agency’s inspector general to review the legality as well as the appropriateness of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development using public funds for public relations purposes, claiming that the funds might otherwise be available for public health and environmental research.
“Good science does not need spin,” says PEER program director Rebecca Roose, pointing to recent reports that have faulted the agency for improperly altering scientific work on mercury, asbestos, water pollution and even the public health dangers at the World Trade Center following the September 11 attacks. “EPA’s scientists are telling us that there is not enough funding for vital environmental and health research but there appears to be no shortage of money for media manipulation.”
Under laws written in the wake of recent administration scandals, agencies are not supposed to use tax dollars “for publicity or propaganda purposes.” In addition, EPA’s own policies (termed “One Agency, One Voice”) discourage deviation from the standard EPA format or “the creation of identifiers for programs, offices, or initiatives, because EPA should be the primary organizational reference for all EPA efforts, not a lower-level organization.”
An EPA spokeswoman told The New York Times that the effort would call attention to the work of 1,900 scientists and staff members and pointed out that the agency’s annual budget is $600 million. According to spokeswoman Eryn Witcher, “We would like to use less than 1 percent of that to make information accessible to the public.
“It’s not spending money on communications at the expense of research but rather in support of it. This allows the results of EPA research to be shared with the general public.”
Two smaller contracts, worth around $150,000, have already been awarded to JDG Communications, a Virginia firm. One asks the contractor to “develop feature article research and strategy” and to “write the strategy to support a new unit that will be identifying feature story ideas, creating slant, identifying consumer magazines to target and polishing the final article.” The other calls on the contractor to develop two “perception specific indicators” that “must show whether public relations efforts to create awareness and improve the reputation of EPA’s research and development, its labs and its top-quality scientists has favorably influenced public perception.”