The capture of the EPA by the industries it is supposed to regulate is expected to take another step forward as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is poised to compromise the integrity of the EPA Science Advisory Board.
Multiple sources inside and outside of EPA are reporting that Administrator Pruitt will purge independent scientists from EPA scientific advisory committees, appoint industry-tied representatives with views well outside the scientific mainstream in their place, shrink the size and scope of the Science Advisory Board, and issue a directive that prevents scientists who have received EPA grants from serving on the board in the future. Doing so would effectively implement legislation that would politicize EPA science advice that Congress has repeatedly declined to pass.
"When independent science advice at EPA is compromised, decisions that sufficiently protect public health become less likely."
Such a move bans some independent scientists from providing scientific advice while giving those with conflicts a free pass. Collectively, these actions create an abhorrent double standard: scientists who rely on public funding are left out, while industry scientists face no restrictions on service. Fossil fuel and chemical companies already enjoy undue influence over EPA policy under Pruitt. Now, they’re taking control over science advice to the agency.
“This is nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt to try to exclude sound scientific expertise from these advisory committees, and is consistent with efforts to pack these committees with non-science-based interests,” Mark Wiesner, a Duke University civil and environmental engineer who sits on the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors, told Chemistry World.
By a back-of-the-envelope analysis, roughly half of current board members have received EPA funding. EPA grants are funded on the basis of merit and promise. Recipients tend to be the most knowledgeable experts on the issues that the EPA is supposed to address: protecting our air and water from environmental and public health threats.
Nothing good happens when independent experts are replaced by people who have financial incentives to skew the scientific analysis in the direction of the companies they represent. This decision would mean that scientists will be forced to choose between seeking out an EPA grant or eventually lending their expertise to volunteer as a public servant and advise EPA on technical questions.
While this post focuses on the EPA Science Advisory Board, the same rules will likely apply to the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee and other critical EPA science advisory committees.
What the Science Advisory Board does
The Science Advisory Board (SAB) was created by Congress to provide impartial science advice. It doesn’t make policy recommendations or decisions. It holds no veto power. It should exist as a check on anyone with an agenda, from environmentalists to oil companies. If the science is on your side, the board validates it. If you make unsupportable claims, the board calls you out.
Before this year, the Science Advisory Board toiled away in relative obscurity. It dutifully answered scientific questions on emerging and established topics. Scores of scientists have served on the board, for free, as part of their commitment to public service. A few selected highlights:
In 2012, the board wrote this report after conducting interviews with EPA staff to develop advice on how the EPA can strengthen scientific assessments for decision making. The report had been requested by Administrator Stephen Johnson, who served in the George W. Bush administration.
In 2013, the SAB gave the EPA advice on which model to use as it evaluates the health effects of perchlorate, a chemical that can cause cancer and reproductive health and hormonal problems. This advice was used by the agency to help create a standard for perchlorate in water that is currently being considered by the agency.
The Science Advisory Board can also be important to rooting out political interference in science. In 2016, the board found that the EPA’s claims that fracking led to “no widespread impacts” on drinking water supplies was not supported by the best available science. Evidence at the time suggested that the agency had softened its scientists’ conclusions when presenting them in report materials. This, under the Obama administration, which some believed was hostile to fossil fuel extraction. The science advisers were essential to setting the record straight.
Don’t be fooled by appeals to “balance”
In the lead up to the announcement, we have heard predictable arguments from Administrator Pruitt. Let’s take them in turn:
The Science Advisory Board should have more “balance.” This argument fundamentally misrepresents the role of a science advisory committee. Members don’t sit around having discussions about politics or policy. Their work is to evaluate the state of the science, not to negotiate stakeholders’ viewpoints.
Science isn’t about providing equal time for different viewpoints. It is about methods and evidence. Science advisers are not representatives of a constituency or a sector; they are there because they possess specific expertise.
What really should matter is a diversity of expertise, as the board is asked to consider all kinds of scientific questions. “Pruitt would not know a conflict of interest if it slapped him in the face,” said Lawrence Lash, who advises the EPA on chemicals. “Having grant money from the EPA has absolutely nothing to do with advising the EPA on the underlying science.”
The board has been a “rubber stamp” for agency decisions. The Science Advisory Board does not have authority over agency decisions. They do have the ability to determine whether draft policies are supported by the best available evidence. Further, if agency decisions are not scientifically defensible, they can be challenged in court.
The views of scientists who receive “millions” of dollars from the EPA are suspect. There are so many inaccurate implications in just this one assertion. First, most funding pays for equipment, support staff, students, and scientific materials, not to pad a scientist’s wallet. In general, industry scientists get paid significantly more than those who receive public funding.
Second, there is no incentive for an EPA grant-funded scientist to have a particular view on science advisory board decisions. In fact, it isn’t clear what this would even mean.
EPA grants are given to scientists to further scientific understanding of a particular research topic. Science advisory boards give advice on the use of science in EPA decisions. These are often entirely different realms. If a scientist received a grant to study multi-pollutant interactions and their health impacts, does that mean they would be incentivized to say that EPA was or wasn’t following the science on the drinking water impacts of fracking?
Grants and SAB decisions are often on divergent topics and scopes. Even if a scientist wanted to come up with science advice that pleased EPA, it isn’t clear what that would be. Current or future funding is in no way correlated with a scientist’s work with the advisory board.
Third, scientists who receive EPA grants tend to be those with the most expertise on topics. Excluding such scientists means that the agency won’t be getting the best science advice.
(Historically) what happens when an advisory committee is stacked with conflicted experts?
Politicized advisory committees end up giving bad advice, agency decisions suffer, and legal challenges to rules and regulations are more likely to prevail. According to a former Science Advisory Board member:
“Over the past 35 years I have served on numerous federal scientific advisory panels, including EPA’s Science Advisory Board, and many committees and boards of the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine. In my view, the history of past purges shows that stacking the deck with like-minded advocates is self-defeating. That’s true whether those advocates come from industry or nongovernmental organizations–and especially if they represent only one political party.
“Recommendations from these “friendly” panels will not win broad support from the scientific community, and I predict the committees will quickly lose their credibility, legitimacy and influence. Consequently, policies and regulations based on the panels’ recommendations will be less likely to withstand public or political scrutiny and be more open to legal challenges than if they were based on more balanced input.”
The new restrictions mean that the most qualified scientists will be left out of the process. In their place will be those who will be more likely to remain silent or attempt to provide cover for decisions that are not grounded in evidence. While over the long term this process may be self-correcting, in the short term we will all suffer from a less effective Environmental Protection Agency.
It’s all consistent with a hostile takeover of science-based policymaking: those with true conflicts of interest are exerting control over not only staff positions but also the independent entities who are there to provide science advice. Without public protections that are fully informed by independent science, more people will die and get sick, and our quality of life will suffer. We should do all we can—including challenging the new directive in court—to prevent Administrator Pruitt from excluding independent scientific advice from the work of the EPA.