By Andrew Rosenberg, Union of Concerned Scientists
Everything about EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s directive to change the agency’s science advisory boards was damaging to the way that science informs policy at our nation’s premier public health agency. Mr. Pruitt based his action on a set of false premises. The logic of the action is fundamentally flawed and turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head. The specific appointments made are of people with deep conflicts of interest who have long espoused views concerning threats to public health divergent with the weight of scientific evidence on many issues. In fact, in a slip of the tongue at the start of the press conference Mr Pruitt said, “We are here to change the facts [FACs]…I mean the FACA (Federal Advisory Committee Act committees).” He had it right the first time.
But in some sense the most disturbing statement Mr. Pruitt made was that scientists had to make a choice—either to pursue research grants or to engage in public service by serving on an advisory committee. This is a false choice of the first order. I hope scientists everywhere categorically reject the idea of a choice between doing research and serving as advisors to public agencies. In fact, I believe that it is scientists who have been and perhaps still are active researchers—on the cutting edge of knowledge—who should be providing scientific advice to government. Obtaining a government research grant never buys one’s loyalty to any particular policy position. That may be a convenient political talking point for Mr. Pruitt and his supporters like Cong. Smith (R-TX) or Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) who joined him for the announcement of his new directive, but it is still nonsense.
I believe that serving on a government advisory committee is public service and something that every scientist who has the opportunity and inclination should seriously consider. Many universities have public service as part of their core mission right alongside teaching and research. Serving on an advisory committee is one way that broader service to the public grows out of the day to day work of science. And it is exactly because one does outstanding research that your voice is so important as an independent source of scientific information in the process of making public policy.
So please don’t choose between public service and grant-funded research. I for one hope that more scientists will try to do both. Just because Scott Pruitt is hostile to scientists in public life doesn’t mean you should stay out—beyond serving in advisory committees, here are other ways you can put science to work for people. Don’t make the false choice Scott Pruitt called for.