Removing Scientists from Advisory Panels

The EPA has removed qualified academics from its advisory panels and replaced them with industry scientists.

Advisory committees provide the EPA independent, expert advice on an array of issues the agency must consider and tasks it must perform that entail science-intensive analysis or judgment. These include advising the agency on – to cite but a few of numerous examples – health-based ambient air quality standards, determinations of acceptable risk levels for exposure to toxic chemicals, the net carbon impact of burning biomass, studies of the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water, and how to value human life for purposes of economic analysis.

EPA’s prowess as a science agency has been widely acknowledged over much of its history, and it has relied on panels of independent and highly qualified scientists – often leaders in their respective fields – to sustain or complement its own resources and expertise. Scientists who serve on these panels are noted both for their outstanding qualifications and accomplishments and for their independence from financial self-interest that might arise from their being employed by or affiliated with private sector businesses that are regulated by the EPA. Instead, they are usually employees of universities or similar research institutions, affiliations that have assured the agency – and the public – that their work is disinterested and objective.

For the first time in the agency’s history, however, Administrator Pruitt has inverted this approach. In an October 31, 2017, directive, Administrator Pruitt removed scientists from several of these panels on the basis of a novel interpretation of what constituted a conflict of interest. Specifically, he decreed that no one will be allowed to serve as an advisor who has received a grant from the EPA – a pre-condition that mostly affects academic experts who routinely receive government funding for research.

This pre-condition, however, has long been discredited by the federal courts. For example, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has stated: “Working for or receiving a grant from [an agency], or co-authoring a paper with a person affiliated with the department, does not impair a scientist’s ability to provide technical, scientific peer review of a study sponsored by . . . one of its agencies.” Cargill, Inc., v. United States, 173 F. 3d 323, 339 (1999). Pruitt’s novel theory features no such exclusion for scientists and other experts working for a private industry even if the industry is regulated by the EPA.

As a result, membership of these committees has changed dramatically, with Inside Climate News reporting that since Pruitt took office, the proportion of leading academics on the Science Advisory Board has fallen from 79% to 50% and the proportion of industry-employed scientists has risen from 6% to 23%. Yet, these panels will guide the EPA on important decisions, such as what level of air pollution is safe for children or what effect exposure to a toxic chemical has on pregnant women.

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