By Genna Reed, Union of Concerned Scientists
Before September, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board was composed of 47 scientists volunteering their time as public servants to help advise the agency on issues ranging from the safety of selected chemicals to the types of models used by the agency to sufficiently study emissions.
The process of becoming an SAB member has always come with full ethics disclosures and careful consideration of potential conflicts of interest, from all sources of funding, whether it’s an EPA grant or industry funding. Scientists with agency funding have served on the board ever since the SAB was first formed, and because EPA grants are awarded through a competitive, peer-reviewed process, the objectivity of scientists with EPA grant funding was not likely to be questioned. SAB members with conflicts pertaining to specific subjects have mitigated those by disclosing them and recusing themselves from conversations that might represent a conflict.
After nearly 40 years of operation, it appears that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has decided to change the rules of the SAB and possibly other advisory committees at the agency by ordering that no individuals receiving EPA grant funding can serve on the board. Why would the administrator of an agency whose mission is to protect public health and the environment actively work to ensure that some of our greatest minds wouldn’t be allowed to advise him on pressing scientific questions? No need to ask Pruitt, just ask his friends from the regulated community who have been working to turn conflict of interest on its head at the agency in the name of “balance.”
Trade group gets warm and fuzzy about “balance”
The Federal Advisory Committee Act, under which federal advisory committees operate, requires that committees are “fairly balanced,” and it’s up to the agency to determine what that means for each committee. For the EPA SAB, the 2017 charter and membership balance plan explicitly say that balance involves a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.” For the SAB and CASAC, balance should not be a balance of opinions or interests in the EPA’s policy outcomes. The American Chemistry Council and other industry representatives disagree.
In March, the American Chemistry Council endorsed the EPA SAB Reform Act, writing, “The Science Advisory Board Reform Act would improve the peer review process—a critical component of the scientific process used by EPA in their regulatory decisions about potential risks to human health or the environment. The Act would make peer reviewers accountable for responding to public comment, strengthen policies to address conflicts of interest, ensure engagement of a wide range of perspectives of qualified scientific experts in EPA’s scientific peer review panels and increase transparency in peer review reports.” The press contact on this release? Liz Bowman. Yes, the same Liz Bowman who is now a spokeswoman at the EPA. A cherry on top of the revolving door sundae.
After the bill passed the House in March, the ACC wrote again, “We urge the Senate to take up the bill and are committed to working with Congress to advance legislation that will enhance accountability and ensure appropriate balance in EPA’s peer review process.”
In May, the American Chemistry Council responded to Pruitt’s dismissal of BOSC members by saying, “A number of people and groups have been concerned in the past the membership of EPA’s scientific advisory boards lacked diversity: diversity of interests, diversity of scientific disciplines, and diversity of backgrounds, resulting in a narrow or biased perspective concerning issues EPA was researching,” Openshaw said. “Everyone benefits when regulations are based on the best available science.”
After the nominees were announced in September, the Heartland Institute told E&E news that: “We applaud any effort by Administrator Pruitt to bring qualified non-alarmist scientists onto the EPA’s advisory boards. There is a vigorous debate over the causes and consequences of climate change, and it’s vital that EPA acknowledge that fact and have a more balanced approach to the agency’s rule-making.”
Administrator Pruitt parroted these same arguments in his announcement on the impending SAB decision made at a recent Heritage Foundation event.
What’s in store for the SAB?
The new SAB will consist of five fewer members than it did before, operating with 42 instead of 47 members. According to its new charter, it will also meet fewer times, 6-8 instead of 8-10 each year. While there may be representation from more states in the name of diversity, the number of women scientists on the committee has been slashed by half from nearly 21 to just 10. The decision not to renew the terms of six individuals who had already been fully vetted and were qualified to serve again also breaks with precedent. Additionally, rather than appoint a current SAB member as chair as has been done in the past, it appears that Michael Honeycutt from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will be leading this new board’s deliberations. Honeycutt was one of the individuals I urged Pruitt not to choose last month. Clearly, that plea fell on deaf ears.
The number of industry representatives on the SAB has more than doubled, which doesn’t include the individuals from consulting firms or state governments who have long histories of working very closely with the private sector.
New member Donald van der Vaart wrote an op-ed in 2015 criticizing the North Carolina Attorney General for his support of the Clean Power Plan, which van der Vaart called an “act of overreach” and “federal intrusion.” He supported Myron Ebell as a suitable leader to run the EPA transition team. He later wrote a letter to President-elect Trump, alleging that the EPA has “run out of control,” is “agenda-driven” and an “autocrat.”
Also on the list are S. Stanley Young and Richard Smith, two of the co-authors on this paper, whose thinking on air pollution science is far outside the mainstream, ignoring long-held and understood concepts about air pollution and health risks.
The American Chemistry Council achieved its request for so-called “balance” to include more industry perspectives on the board, and gained an inside look at the SAB, as long-time staffer Kimberly White will also be a member.
These individuals are likely to dramatically skew science advice to the EPA in a way that will support Pruitt’s decisions to loosen pollution regulations and emissions standards. A hit on the quality of science advice at the EPA is a direct threat to our health and safety.
Fixing advisory committees to reach predetermined conclusions
Last week we introduced the plays of the Disinformation Playbook, often used by companies and trade associations to manipulate or suppress science in order to achieve a specific policy outcome. The way in which Scott Pruitt is stacking the Science Advisory Board to manipulate the science advice process is an example of “The Fix.” Unfortunately, we’ve already seen several examples of this play used by the likes of Dow Chemical Co. and the American Chemistry Council to cast doubt on the science to delay or obstruct public health and safety provisions just within the EPA in the past year.
In light of this blatant attack on independent science at the EPA, we’re calling on Congress to conduct oversight at the agency and to investigate Scott Pruitt’s actions with the SAB, CASAC, and BOSC as potential interference in the scientific process.