By Genna Reed, Union of Concerned Scientists
I told E&E News before this week’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) meeting that my concern was that Administrator Wheeler was using the board “as a box he needs to check off” on his path to deregulation. He called out my quote in his statement to the SAB on Tuesday morning and refuted the underlying assumption that he didn’t value his science advisors. I didn’t have to wait long before the proceedings of the meeting proved my very point and illustrated exactly how little Administrator Wheeler cares about the scientific underpinnings of regulations, the opinions of his own scientists and science advisors, or even in getting basic scientific facts correct. Here are just a few anecdotes from this week’s SAB meeting that made this clear:
“The devil’s in the details and we don’t have any of the details”
The very first matter of business for the SAB was to hear from the EPA about its restricted science rule. Remember, the SAB was not informed about this policy until it was proposed and went to public comment. At the last SAB meeting in May 2018, the committee voted in favor of asking former Administrator Pruitt to charge them with reviewing the policy. They sent an official letter in June 2018 and then waited for a response. EPA responded a whopping 10 months later in April. I mean, I had a baby in the amount of time it took for the EPA respond to its own science advisors. Not only was the response late, but Wheeler asked only for input on a very narrow piece of the rule–how the agency will deal with access to confidential business information and personally identifiable information).
Now, as the agency intends to get this politically-hatched rule out the door by the end of 2019, the EPA still hasn’t responded to the SAB’s questionsit sent last month. After much discussion about how the agency has given them no information about the rule and answered none of their questions, yet it has the potential to impact public health science in a major way. There was also much consternation from the committee about the fact that at this point, any contributions they make to the rule will come too late to meaningfully inform it. In the end the SAB almost unanimously voted to do a full review of the rule, which the chair Michael Honeycutt aims to get done before the fall. A quick side note on this is that the people that raised their hands when asked who had enough time to help write the first draft of a full review over the summer were mostly affiliated with industry and consulting firms, whose involvement in these matters demands scrutiny anyway.
In his opening statement, Administrator Wheeler defended the agency’s so-called transparency rule by pointing to the “safeguard” is that the Administrator could allow studies to be used even without making the data public on a case by case basis to “ensure that studies beneficial to public health won’t be ignored.” But as we’ve explained before, the fact that this is even a part of the rule undermines its entire raison d’etre and shows exactly how arbitrary it is. Administrator Wheeler may say he wants SAB feedback on this rule, but it’s abundantly clear that he doesn’t really want scientific input because it would result in a grand takedown of this mess of a policy.
Attempt to fix SAB engagement process misses the mark
Administrator Wheeler told the SAB Wednesday morning, “Today we are beginning the transition to a new process. It’s no secret that the process was broken, and was not beneficial to the EPA, the board, or the public we all serve.” He harped on this theme quite a lot, later saying, “I’m glad to be here to lay out a new direction for how EPA interacts with and uses the SAB,” he said. “I will be the first to admit we have not utilized you the way that we should. We can and we will do better.”
After all of this lead-up, I expected something much better thought-out than what the agency presented the SAB with. It seems that the “interim process” would notify the SAB of agency actions “closer to” when they are published in the federal register. The agency then gave no further details on what “closer to” meant and whether it would be in the spirit of the law governing SAB. The lack of information in the presentation made it clear that Wheeler felt he needed to make SAB feel as if it was being included, even if the inclusion is all for show. A box checked.
Changing best practices of term lengths and conflicts of interest has done noticeable damage
If Wheeler truly believed that “science is the foundation for everything the agency does,” as he said in his statement, and wanted an independent, diverse, and expert SAB, he would have rolled back former Administrator Pruitt’s nonsensical directive that declared EPA grants a conflict of interest so egregious that it would disqualify scientists from serving on the board. UCS and more than 20 other organizations directly asked Wheeler to reverse this ridiculous ban, but he pressed onward. What this directive and changes to term lengths on this committee has done is reduce the institutional knowledge significantly so that only a few veterans know how SAB’s process works and everyone else is flying blind. By the time everyone figures out what to do it’ll be too late to get anything done, thus rendering the SAB nearly useless. This, of course, is exactly what this administration wants from its science advisors because if the science of many of the deregulatory and anti-science actions taken by this EPA was checked by independent scientists, it wouldn’t pass the sniff test.
What’s the path forward?
While it was encouraging to see the SAB members agree to take on many important scientific issues within the EPA’s deregulatory agenda, there’s nothing in Wheeler’s former actions to give me faith that that his rhetoric about weighing the SAB’s feedback and valuing science is anything more than talk. As he continues to further undermine the science advice process at the agency, the integrity of the SAB is at stake. To find out more about what happened at the meeting this week, check out my twitter threads from Wednesday and Thursday.