WASHINGTON – When EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced a plan recently to forbid scientists who receive grants from the agency from serving as outside advisers, he singled out three key groups: the Scientific Advisory Board, the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee and the Board of Scientific Counselors.
While those rank among the most influential groups in providing the EPA with the scientific and technical advice it historically relies on while crafting environmental regulations, they represent only a portion of the agency’s outside advisers. The EPA boasts 22 advisory committees, offering regulators guidance on everything from children’s health to pesticides to hazardous waste.
Each of them will now be subject to the agency’s new and unprecedented restriction.
“The policy directive applies to all of these committees moving forward, and members whose current grant status does not line up with the directive will have an opportunity to make a decision about their continued service when their term is up for renewal,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an email.
Shortly after announcing the policy last month, Pruitt appointed 66 advisers, bringing in more researchers from the Midwest and West and adding multiple researchers from industry and state government. The Center for Science and Democracy estimates that on the Scientific Advisory Board alone, Pruitt has tripled the number of industry and consulting-firm scientists while cutting academic researchers nearly by half.
The move set in motion what could be an elemental shift at the agency.
“It is very, very important to ensure independence, to ensure that we’re getting advice and counsel independent of the EPA,” Pruitt said in explaining his decision.
But the EPA has chosen not impose a similar litmus test on scientific advisers who receive grants from outside sources. Pruitt said merely that they will undergo the same sort of ethics review already in place “to ensure that there aren’t issues of potential conflict with areas that they’re working upon.”
Some industry groups and Republican legislators have welcomed the change, saying it will bring long-overdue balance to the boards. Environmental and scientific groups were quick to condemn it, arguing that Pruitt had turned the notion of conflict-of-interest on its head. They say the move will amount to a purge of independent scientists and tip the scales toward the wishes of industries regulated by the EPA.
Pruitt’s new directive has also prompted pushback from 10 Democratic senators, who on Thursday asked the Government Accountability Office to expand its probe examining the independence of EPA’s advisory boards. Led by Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the lawmakers asked the GAO to analyze whether accepting EPA grants poses a true conflict of interest for members of its federal advisory committees.
On the three main boards Pruitt targeted, according to Bowman, two scientists opted to give up their EPA grants to continue serving but seven did not – and no longer can serve.
A list of new appointments to those boards includes more voices from regulated industries, academics and environmental regulators from conservative states, as well as researchers who have a history of critiquing the science and economics underpinning tighter environmental regulations.
But at least one researcher being removed from the Scientific Advisory Board has challenged Pruitt to explicitly fire her.
Robyn Wilson, an Ohio State University professor and specialist in risk analysis, got word in a terse email that she no longer would be needed as an adviser.
“Thank you for your service,” an EPA staffer wrote last Friday, noting Pruitt’s new policy. Wilson, who had received her first EPA grant this year – for a project evaluating the impact of federal funding on restoring the Great Lakes – was now barred from serving.
In a small act of rebellion, Wilson hit reply.
“I just wanted to let you know that I am not officially resigning or stepping down from the board,” she wrote. “It seems as if the intention of the Administrator is to force us to choose between our grants and the board given the new policy. I simply will not do that as it is a false choice.”
One irony, she noted, was that her agency-funded research actually indicated that there are ways to improve water quality in the Great Lakes without regulation. She saw far greater potential for a conflict of interest among board members representing the regulated industries than she did for academics, she continued.
“Mr. Pruitt is welcome to officially fire me from the Board, as I am clearly not on the new list of SAB members,” Wilson wrote. “But given I had one year left in my term, and I was hired by the previous Administrator, it seems as if the appropriate way for him to enact this policy is to provide an official letter informing me that I am being let go before my term ends.”
She won’t be getting a letter, it seems.
“We appreciate her service and desire to continue to serve,” Bowman said when asked about the situation. “The Administrator has issued a directive which clearly states his policy in this regard.”
Wilson said this week that she felt compelled to protest given her view that Pruitt’s actions are arbitrary, capricious and possibly in violations of the law surrounding federal advisory boards. More than that, she said, they are simply wrongheaded.
“Somebody has to start standing up to this nonsense, and it seems like the least I could do is go on the record to say I am not resigning, as I don’t think it is appropriate that we be given this ‘choice,’” Wilson said in an email. “If this policy is so sound, then officially fire us, which no one has done yet … If we are hired with a letter from the Administrator, we should be fired with a letter from the Administrator.”
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