PEER last November filed two Freedom of Information Act requests with EPA to release copies of what the advocacy group believes are extensive surveys conducted from 1999 through 2003 within the EPA Office of Research and Development. PEER estimates there are 2,000 scientists working within the office, which provides scientific research for other EPA program offices and often has a direct impact on EPA program policies and regulatory decisions, said PEER Program Director Rebecca Roose.
"It's a very critical segment," Roose said.
According to PEER, the surveys covered topics ranging from the adequacy of EPA's resources to the effects of management practices on employee morale.
"Any responses, whether positive or negative, will help us determine what kind of work environment scientists are experiencing, what kind of impact the agency's policies have on their ability to do their jobs and the integrity of the work that comes out of the agency," Roose said. "It also will give us more information on how taxpayer money is being spent inside the agency, if it's being spent effectively, whether scientists are keeping up with developments in their field and whether they feel they're allowed to do their job to the best of their ability within the constraints of the policy framework."
The three sets of surveys taken over 6 years also would allow comparison of scientist perceptions during both the Clinton and Bush administrations, PEER says.
An EPA spokesperson declined to comment for this story because she said PEER's legal action precludes the agency from discussing the specifics of the surveys.
EPA Denied PEER 5 Months After Initial Request
Roose said EPA failed to respond to PEER's initial Freedom of Information Act requests last November -- federal law requires agencies to respond within 20 working days of a request -- which prompted PEER to file an appeal in mid-January.
EPA, in a letter to PEER dated March 11, said it was unable to release the survey results to the advocacy group because the surveys are exempt from mandatory disclosure under Title 5 of the United States Code, Section 552 (b), Exemption 5: "Privileged Inter-Agency or Intra-Agency Records."
The letter, however, instructed PEER of its right to file an appeal within 30 calendar days of receipt of the letter -- even though the advocacy group says it had filed an appeal weeks earlier.
At the heart of the matter, Roose says, is the public's right to know.
"These scientists work within an agency but they work for the public," Roose said. "The public has a right to know if public agency scientists are being prevented from doing their jobs by politics."
The PEER lawsuit, which calls EPA's conduct "arbitrary and capricious," contends that EPA has no legal basis for withholding the survey results.
"The agency claims that the surveys are part of EPA's 'deliberative process' without offering any justification as to how or why," said PEER General Counsel Richard Condit, who filed the suit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. "It is difficult to imagine what groundbreaking policies the agency might be contemplating based on 6-year-old survey data."
Roose speculates that some of the survey results "shine an unfavorable light on EPA's Office of Research and Development" and that the agency might want to keep a lid on it.
"But we really don't know," she said. "In their failure to respond for months, we didn't get any indication what was causing the delay."