Scientists Sue EPA Over Advisory Board Changes

Administrator’s Directive Defies the Law, Undermines Science Americans Depend On

Published Jan 23, 2018

WASHINGTON (January 23, 2018)—Today, a group of scientists filed suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for changing the makeup of its advisory boards to limit the participation of scientists from academia and nonpartisan non-profit organizations. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in October that he would exclude anyone from serving on any of the 23 EPA scientific advisory boards if they had received EPA grants to fund any of their research. The directive is arbitrary, without any factual or legal grounding, and violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires advisory committees to be fairly balanced and protected from inappropriate influence by the appointing authority, according to the lawsuit. As the suit explains, the open exchange of accurate scientific information is a touchstone of a functioning democracy.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts by Protect Democracy, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization, and the law firm Jenner & Block, representing the Union of Concerned Scientists and Dr. Elizabeth A. (Lianne) Sheppard, professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health.

“This is an abuse of power and an affront to the scientific integrity of the EPA and the federal government.” said Joshua Goldman, senior legal analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “This directive singles out scientists from the nonprofit and academic sector—recognized experts in their field who want to serve the public—and asks them to choose between public service and their scientific work. It’s another example of this administration’s hostility to independent scientific input and basing policy on impartial and balanced scientific evidence. The directive inherently prevents the agency from receiving independent scientific advice, and erects unnecessary barriers to scientists who want to use their expertise to serve the public.

“The EPA hasn’t bothered to make the case for why EPA grants create a conflict of interest. Mr. Pruitt simply can’t justify this decision, especially when there are no such restrictions on scientists who get funding from the industries the EPA oversees.”

The lawsuit is vital because undermining scientific advisory committees weakens an important check on the administration’s decisions.

“Anti-democratic governments thrive on obfuscating truth and seeking to suppress scientists and other authoritative voices that offer accurate information,” said Protect Democracy counsel Jamila Benkato. “The EPA’s directive is one more example of the administration’s assault on facts.”

The directive unfairly excludes scientists from the role they should play in policymaking, according to the plaintiffs.

“I am committed to serving on federal advisory committees because I believe this is one of the most effective ways for me to use my scientific expertise to promote public health,” said Dr. Sheppard. “This directive forces me to choose between my own work and my commitment to the public.”

The lawsuit asks the court to overturn Pruitt’s directive and prevent EPA staff from implementing the directive.

“When we ban America’s top scientists from providing their expertise to the EPA, we all suffer,” said Goldman. “EPA advisory boards examine vital questions, like what makes for unsafe levels of pollution in the air and the amount of chemical exposure that constitutes a health risk. EPA rules need to be based on the best available science. This directive fundamentally undermines the EPA’s ability to carry out its mission of protecting all Americans.”