The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s proposed Scientific Integrity Draft Policy promises to base its science-based decisions on the best available science. Yet, it’s too greatly informed by flawed socially progressive platitudes. 

The EPA says it must urgently enhance its “culture of scientific integrity.” How so? By factoring in diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and indigenous knowledge.

The draft policy says DEI promotes a “strong culture of scientific inquiry” at the agency by “ensuring a professional environment that is safe, equitable, inclusive, and free from harassment.” The document adds that DEI is “integral to the scientific process, including the responsible and ethical conduct of research and other scientific activities.”

With respect to indigenous knowledge, the EPA pledges to consult Tribal Nations and indigenous peoples to “include Indigenous Knowledge in decision making” but said input won’t be factored into federal decision making “without first obtaining consent or communicating Federal abilities and limitations to protect Indigenous Knowledge from disclosure or re-use.”

The public has until this Friday, February 23rd, 2024, to submit public comments opposing this proposal. But this is not the first directive of its kind. A November 2022 presidential memo urged the adoption of indigenous knowledge, for instance, across two dozen agencies.

This reimagining of scientific integrity is not isolated at EPA but across the whole of government. 

EPA’s draft Scientific Integrity Draft Policy derives from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)’s January 2023 “A Framework for Federal Scientific Integrity Policy and Practice.” The framework’s purpose is to expand scientific integrity practices to include “granting communities more autonomy over research questions and research design, recognition of data and knowledge sovereignty, and inclusion of multiple forms of evidence, such as Indigenous Knowledge.”

The OSTP’s Scientific Integrity Task Force was formed shortly after President Biden took office under the auspices of combating political interference against government employees engaged in scientific research.

This practice got a big boost last fall. The National Science Foundation (NSF) announced the creation of an inaugural Center for Braiding Indigenous Knowledges and Science (CBIKS) at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It’s a five-year, $30 million center connecting Western science with indigenous knowledge to fight climate change and address environmental issues. 

There’s debate whether indigenous knowledge—or traditional ecological knowledge—is scientific. The former is “place-specific”—such as the relationship between people and their natural surroundings—while the latter studies isolated targets. The National Library of Medicine differentiates between the two, writing, “Western science favours analytical and reductionist methods as opposed to the more intuitive and holistic view often found in traditional knowledge. Western science is positivist and materialist in contrast to traditional knowledge, which is spiritual and does not make distinctions between empirical and sacred.” 

As the Washington Free Beacon reported, it’s hard to consider indigenous knowledge as scientific inquiry with 600 federally recognized tribes in the U.S. boasting different interests, traditions, and religious beliefs. The report added anything could also qualify as indigenous knowledge if a Native person declares it. Native input on scientific integrity grounds was found to be nonconsequential in Canada. The publication explained:

In Canada, Native input on climate change studies often proved useless. A 2004 academic survey there from “16 [Native] community members and elders considered to be local experts on ice” provided no unique insights on the effects of climate change. Quotes from participants included “‘Ice goes up quicker now … It is different,’ ‘Freeze-up is way later,’ and ‘The weather nowadays [is] sometimes cold, but sometimes hot too … [but at the] wrong time.’

Will the Biden administration accept theoretical indigenous knowledge from pro-oil, gas, and coal tribes when approving or denying these projects? Or will such knowledge be subjectively applied if it conflicts with the White House’s net-zero agenda? 

Alaska Natives heavily lobbied for the Willow Project oil to proceed, despite pressure from environmentalists. The Navajo Nation blasted the administration for blocking energy development near Chaco Canyon in New Mexico because it would deprive its members of income-earning opportunities—yet the project was still blocked anyway. And the Utah-based Ute Tribe said the Biden administration’s Day One directives blocking new oil and gas exploration hurt their sovereignty.

Indigenous knowledge can be useful for understanding conservation practices like prescribed burns and hunting. Yet subjective practice can’t replace conventional science.