EPA blocks some scientists from serving on advisory boards

The agency argues the move will promote independence. Critics disagree.

October 31, 2017, 3:29 PM

— -- The Environmental Protection Agency announced today that scientists who receive money from the agency will no longer be able to serve on its advisory boards, a move that critics contend will push independent science out of decisions about environmental policy.

The announcement affects members of the EPA's federal advisory committees.

The agency has several boards comprised of subject matter experts who help interpret and make decisions about scientific information. The main Scientific Advisory Board is mandated by Congress and typically includes academics from around the country to provide expert advise on scientific topics, according to the EPA website. EPA head Scott Pruitt said the matter is about agency independence.

"Whatever science comes out of EPA, shouldn't be political science," Pruitt said in a press release announcing the decision. "From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the agency."

The policy applies to the Science Advisory Board, Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and Board of Scientific Counselors and will go into effect for all future board members, as well as current members who have received grant money within the last three years. Current members may elect whether to remain in their positions or keep their grant.

The EPA gives out more than $4 billion in grant money every year to researchers, state and local governments, as well as nonprofit groups. Since the grants are federal money, applicants are required to state any potential conflicts of interest when they apply. The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and Board of Scientific Counselors received over $77 million in direct grants in the last three years.

Critics said the new policy underscores the agency's indifference when it comes to hearing from independent experts and the move will put more scientists with ties to industry groups in a role to influence policy.

“Independent science is absolutely critical to making good policies that keep our air and water clean and our communities safe. But this administration — particularly EPA administrator Pruitt — seems to have taken every opportunity to cut science out," Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a statement. "Today’s announcement is a blatant effort to stack the boards and put narrow industry interests ahead of public health and safety.”

PHOTO: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks in Washington, Feb. 21, 2017.
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks in Washington, Feb. 21, 2017.

In May, several members of the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors were not invited back to one of the boards, a move they denounced as unusual. The president of EPA employee union said at the time that employees were worried Pruitt would replace scientists with people who injected personal viewpoints into their work.

Critics have repeatedly warned that Pruitt is trying to push out scientists and subject matter experts, especially when their work relates to climate change. Earlier this month the EPA public affairs office told EPA scientists not to speak at a conference for a report they worked on about the restoration of Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island.

The EPA argues that in addition to strengthening the independence of members on its boards, the move will further increase the diversity of the councils, with new members offering "fresh perspectives." The agency is further promoting participation from state, local and tribal governments.

Pruitt has said that he wants the agency to take a new approach to evaluating scientific conclusions, instead of the standard peer review process that is accepted in scientific circles. He's said that he wants to bring in "red team" scientists and "blue team" scientists to debate in what critics say could be an attempt to question accepted conclusions about the danger of climate change.

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