By Michael Halpern, Union of Concerned Scientists
Earlier today, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt strongly suggested that the agency will not consider any candidate for EPA’s science advisory committees who has received a grant from the agency. Such a gobsmackingly boneheaded move would further hamstring the ability of the EPA to accomplish its public health mission. The administrator is directly challenging the intent of Congress, which established the Science Advisory Board to provide independent scientific advice so that EPA can effectively protect our health and environment.
So why now? Administrator Pruitt’s schedule offers some clues. House Science Committee Chairman and serial scientist harasser Lamar Smith is a champion of the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, flawed legislation that would increase industry control over the Science Advisory Board and, yes, prevent EPA grant recipients from serving. UCS’s Yogin Kothari summed up the legislation for the New Republic:
“They’re basically saying that people who are experts in environmental science, who have spent their careers working on this and may have received EPA grants to do their work, are inherently conflicted, whereas people who are working in the industry, who would be impacted by the board’s advice, are not conflicted,” Kothari said. “I mean, that’s bananas, right?”
Congress has for years failed to pass this legislation, which was vehemently and repeatedly opposed by UCS and many other mainstream science organizations. So in April 2017, a presumably frustrated Chairman Smith got together with Administrator Pruitt to talk about the bill. Pretty persuasion from the congressman seems to have worked.
Now keep in mind, Administrator Pruitt already has a parade of lobbyists and advisors providing him with the perspectives from oil, gas, and chemical companies. He already thinks he has all the right friends, but would be best served to hear from independent experts, too.
The Science Advisory Board, for now, can be a check on political influence and can help the agency determine whether the special interests are telling it straight. I can see why a man of his outlook would want to neutralize it.
There are plenty of extremely well-qualified, universally respected candidates who can provide scientific advice to an administrator who really needs it. Getting science advice from the EPA Science Advisory Board is like getting basketball tips from 40 Steph Currys. It’s the best in the business, volunteering their time in service of the public good.
Industry participation on the Science Advisory Board is not a problem. But candidates should be evaluated on their scientific expertise and ability to remain objective. So let’s recap: according to some, scientists who receive money from oil and chemical companies are perfectly qualified to provide the EPA with independent science advice, while those who receive federal grants are not. It’s a fundamental misrepresentation of how conflicts of interest work.
Soon, we’ll hear who the EPA will appoint after controversially dismissing qualified scientists earlier this year. Will the new appointees be Yes Men or responsible researchers? All signs point to the former.
If Administrator Pruitt continues to politicize the Science Advisory Board, he’ll be willfully setting himself up to fail at the job of protecting public health and the environment. It’s not something we should stand for.