Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

EPA to Bar Some Scientists From Advisory Panels Over `Conflicts'

Updated on
  • Pruitt’s new policy prevents panel members from getting grants
  • Critics say regulated industries will have more say on panels

The Trump administration is shaking up the expert panels that interpret the scientific research underpinning pollution regulations by making it harder for some scientists to participate. 

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said his new policy would bar members of EPA’s scientific advisory boards from also receiving agency grants, portraying the change as a way to limit conflicts of interest and ensure "independent, arms-length input" on issues ranging from pesticides to drinking water.

“Whatever science we’re involved in here at the EPA should not be political science," Pruitt said ahead of a 2 p.m. event to highlight the policy info for lawmakers and conservative, free-market advocates at the EPA building in Washington.

Some $77 million in grants has gone to members of the Science Advisory Board, Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and other EPA panels over the past three years, Pruitt told reporters on Tuesday. “It just is not right for the agency to be issuing $77 million in grants and then asking these people to be providing independent counsel.”

Conservatives and congressional critics of the committees have argued that members depending on EPA funding are vulnerable to pressure from the agency’s top political officials and more likely to support regulations. On the other hand, scientists said the new policy would upend the traditional balance of voices on EPA’s scientific advisory panels, potentially edging out academics who depend on agency funding in favor of experts from industry.

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Pruitt said advisory board members will have to make a decision: whether to keep accepting EPA grants or forgo their membership on the panels. All EPA panel members, including those with industry ties, will still be subject to customary ethics reviews, he said. "This is only with respect to EPA’s grants, because that is what we think is important to achieve independence," Pruitt said.

Pruitt’s new directive is set to limit the panel participation of scientists accepting EPA funding based on a false premise that their scientific views can’t be trusted, said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy. 

At the same time, people who work for regulated industries will still be able to serve, Rosenberg said. “This makes no sense. It turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head.”

Results Suspect

Conservatives called Pruitt’s policy overdue.

"The fact that some of the EPA’s advisory boards are filled with members whose research receives millions of dollars of funding from the EPA is an obvious conflict of interest that should never have been allowed to develop," said Myron Ebell, director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a group advocating limited government. "Advice from people who are financially dependent on those they are advising may of course in many instances be sound, but it will always be suspect."

The new policy will apply to grant recipients who are listed as investigator or co-investigator on award contracts, meaning an academic whose university receives EPA grants but is not personally involved in the work would not be affected.

The EPA is set to formally announce new advisory board members in coming days, Pruitt said.

Although full membership rosters will be announced later, Pruitt said he had selected Michael Honeycutt, a toxicologist with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, to be chairman of the Science Advisory Board. Tony Cox, a Denver-based consultant in quantitative risk analysis, will head CASAC, Pruitt said.

The new panelists are set to include some scientists with industry ties, some academics and others from the western U.S. 

Some western lawmakers say their region historically has been underrepresented, and Pruitt stressed the importance of addressing that on Tuesday.

Air & Water Pollution

The EPA has about two dozen advisory committees. The overarching Science Advisory Board is meant to help the agency evaluate scientific evidence -- work that sometimes has it delving into controversial topics, such as whether fracking is responsible for contaminating water near oil and gas wells. 

Another panel, the seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, or CASAC, plays a critical role guiding the EPA’s decisions on national standards for ozone, particulate matter and other pollutants. It’s tasked with reviewing studies governing air pollution and recommending whether existing national standards need to be rewritten.

There’s a long history of scientists from EPA-regulated industries serving on the agency’s advisory panels. The EPA has been considering 132 candidates for the Science Advisory Board, including representatives from Alcoa Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp., Phillips 66 and the Southern Co. About 25 members are expected to stay on. 

The agency has been mulling 43 candidates for CASAC. 

One of the new members of CASAC is set to be Larry Wolk, a pediatrician who heads Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment, a role that puts him at the front lines of the state’s efforts to regulate hydraulic fracturing and clamp down on smog. Under Wolk, the department published a review of research concluding there is limited evidence that living near oil and gas drilling sites poses health dangers.

New Science Advisory Board members are set to include John Graham, the dean of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Don Van Der Vaart, who previously headed the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality; and Stanley Young, a statistician who previously worked at Eli Lilly & Co. and GlaxoSmithKline Plc, Ebell said.

At least some scientists who reapplied are returning to the committees, Pruitt said.

“Many of those folks who have served historically have reapplied,” Pruitt said. “Some of those very same folks are going to continue serving.”

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