UCS Blog - The Equation (text only)

Scott Pruitt’s EPA Grant Ban Doesn’t Apply to States or Tribes. Here’s Why That’s Interesting.

This afternoon, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that nobody who receives an EPA grant should be allowed to provide scientific advice to the agency. Yep—those scientists, the ones that the EPA thinks do the most promising research related to public health and the environment? Their advice isn’t welcome anymore. We’ve written a lot about how this represents a major step in the political takeover of science advice at EPA.

Except! The ban doesn’t apply to states or tribes who receive government funding. Why would that be? Pruitt believes that anyone who gets millions of dollars from the government must have an agenda to impose regulations on the American people. Why wouldn’t this apply to states and tribes? Let’s go deep in the heart of Texas.

According to its own data, the Texas Council on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) received $58,273,661.63 from the EPA in 2016. Michael Honeycutt is the lead toxicologist at TCEQ, a state agency that often acts as more of an advocate for the refineries that do business in the state than the environment it is charged with protecting. The American Chemistry Council and the Texas Oil and Gas Association love Dr. Honeycutt so much that they labored unsuccessfully to get him appointed to the board in 2016.

In a press conference earlier this afternoon, Scott Pruitt suggested that the millions that university scientists had received in grant funding should make them ineligible to provide science advice to the agency. And then, in virtually the next breath, he turned around and appointed Dr. Honeycutt to chair the board. Not just a participant. THE CHAIR.

So, then, millions of dollars of government funding is A-OK.

Just as long as you’re giving the administrator the information he wants.

No wonder the American Association for the Advancement of Science was livid, noting that, “policymaking cannot thrive when policymakers use politics as a pretext to attack scientific objectivity.”

Scott Pruitt Deals Yet Another Blow to Independent Science Advice at the EPA

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA 2.0 (Wikimedia)

Before September, the EPA’s Science Advisory Board was composed of 47 scientists volunteering their time as public servants to help advise the agency on issues ranging from the safety of selected chemicals to the types of models used by the agency to sufficiently study emissions.

The process of becoming an SAB member has always come with full ethics disclosures and careful consideration of potential conflicts of interest, from all sources of funding, whether it’s an EPA grant or industry funding. Scientists with agency funding have served on the board ever since the SAB was first formed, and because EPA grants are awarded through a competitive, peer-reviewed process, the objectivity of scientists with EPA grant funding was not likely to be questioned. SAB members with conflicts pertaining to specific subjects have mitigated those by disclosing them and recusing themselves from conversations that might represent a conflict.

After nearly 40 years of operation, it appears that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has decided to change the rules of the SAB and possibly other advisory committees at the agency by ordering that no individuals receiving EPA grant funding can serve on the board. Why would the administrator of an agency whose mission is to protect public health and the environment actively work to ensure that some of our greatest minds wouldn’t be allowed to advise him on pressing scientific questions? No need to ask Pruitt, just ask his friends from the regulated community who have been working to turn conflict of interest on its head at the agency in the name of “balance.”

Trade group gets warm and fuzzy about “balance”

The Federal Advisory Committee Act, under which federal advisory committees operate, requires that committees are “fairly balanced,” and it’s up to the agency to determine what that means for each committee. For the EPA SAB, the 2017 charter and membership balance plan explicitly say that balance involves a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.” For the SAB and CASAC, balance should not be a balance of opinions or interests in the EPA’s policy outcomes. The American Chemistry Council and other industry representatives disagree.

In March, the American Chemistry Council endorsed the EPA SAB Reform Act, writing, “The Science Advisory Board Reform Act would improve the peer review process—a critical component of the scientific process used by EPA in their regulatory decisions about potential risks to human health or the environment. The Act would make peer reviewers accountable for responding to public comment, strengthen policies to address conflicts of interest, ensure engagement of a wide range of perspectives of qualified scientific experts in EPA’s scientific peer review panels and increase transparency in peer review reports.” The press contact on this release? Liz Bowman. Yes, the same Liz Bowman who is now a spokeswoman at the EPA. A cherry on top of the revolving door sundae.

After the bill passed the House in March, the ACC wrote again, “We urge the Senate to take up the bill and are committed to working with Congress to advance legislation that will enhance accountability and ensure appropriate balance in EPA’s peer review process.”

In May, the American Chemistry Council responded to Pruitt’s dismissal of BOSC members by saying, “A number of people and groups have been concerned in the past the membership of EPA’s scientific advisory boards lacked diversity: diversity of interests, diversity of scientific disciplines, and diversity of backgrounds, resulting in a narrow or biased perspective concerning issues EPA was researching,” Openshaw said. “Everyone benefits when regulations are based on the best available science.”

After the nominees were announced in September, the Heartland Institute told E&E news that: “We applaud any effort by Administrator Pruitt to bring qualified non-alarmist scientists onto the EPA’s advisory boards. There is a vigorous debate over the causes and consequences of climate change, and it’s vital that EPA acknowledge that fact and have a more balanced approach to the agency’s rule-making.”

Administrator Pruitt parroted these same arguments in his announcement on the impending SAB decision made at a recent Heritage Foundation event.

What’s in store for the SAB?

The new SAB will consist of five fewer members than it did before, operating with 42 instead of 47 members. According to its new charter, it will also meet fewer times, 6-8 instead of 8-10 each year. While there may be representation from more states in the name of diversity, the number of women scientists on the committee has been slashed by half from nearly 21 to just 10. The decision not to renew the terms of six individuals who had already been fully vetted and were qualified to serve again also breaks with precedent. Additionally, rather than appoint a current SAB member as chair as has been done in the past, it appears that Michael Honeycutt from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will be leading this new board’s deliberations. Honeycutt was one of the individuals I urged Pruitt not to choose last month. Clearly, that plea fell on deaf ears.

The number of industry representatives on the SAB has more than doubled, which doesn’t include the individuals from consulting firms or state governments who have long histories of working very closely with the private sector.

New member Donald van der Vaart wrote an op-ed in 2015 criticizing the North Carolina Attorney General for his support of the Clean Power Plan, which van der Vaart called an “act of overreach” and “federal intrusion.” He supported Myron Ebell as a suitable leader to run the EPA transition team. He later wrote a letter to President-elect Trump, alleging that the EPA has “run out of control,” is “agenda-driven” and an “autocrat.”

Also on the list are S. Stanley Young and Richard Smith, two of the co-authors on this paper, whose thinking on air pollution science is far outside the mainstream, ignoring long-held and understood concepts about air pollution and health risks.

The American Chemistry Council achieved its request for so-called “balance” to include more industry perspectives on the board, and gained an inside look at the SAB, as long-time staffer Kimberly White will also be a member.

These individuals are likely to dramatically skew science advice to the EPA in a way that will support Pruitt’s decisions to loosen pollution regulations and emissions standards. A hit on the quality of science advice at the EPA is a direct threat to our health and safety.

Fixing advisory committees to reach predetermined conclusions

Last week we introduced the plays of the Disinformation Playbook, often used by companies and trade associations to manipulate or suppress science in order to achieve a specific policy outcome. The way in which Scott Pruitt is stacking the Science Advisory Board to manipulate the science advice process is an example of “The Fix.” Unfortunately, we’ve already seen several examples of this play used by the likes of Dow Chemical Co. and the American Chemistry Council to cast doubt on the science to delay or obstruct public health and safety provisions just within the EPA in the past year.

In light of this blatant attack on independent science at the EPA, we’re calling on Congress to conduct oversight at the agency and to investigate Scott Pruitt’s actions with the SAB, CASAC, and BOSC as potential interference in the scientific process.

Key Messages on US Offshore Wind, in 5 New Quotes

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

The annual offshore wind conference of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) last week felt even more energized (and energizing) than usual, now that we have offshore wind turbines actually spinning in US waters. Here are five takeaways in quotes from conference speakers that capture where we find ourselves at this moment in clean energy history.

1.      “Our energy challenges are economic development opportunities.”

This quote, from Kevin Law, the president and CEO of the Long Island Association (a chamber of commerce), really struck me as a beautiful when-life-gives-you-lemons-make-lemonade kind of approach to offshore wind.

As Mr. Law pointed out, Long Island, being an island, is surrounded by water. (No, really.) Their particular position on the Eastern seaboard means that frequent storms are an issue. Combine those with an aging power plant fleet and myriad impacts on power infrastructure from climate change, and you’ve got good reason for doing things differently.

Credit: J. Rogers

Offshore wind is totally up for that. For Mr. Law, this new-fangled approach to making electricity reliably and nearby suggests a real opportunity. Not just for what offshore wind could mean in terms of jobs and related economic development, but also for what it could contribute to keeping the lights on when more storms come.

2.     “It all comes back to signposting and visibility.”

If Mr. Law’s quote was a taste of what offshore wind can do for states and regions, the quote from Jonathan Cole of wind developer Iberdrola Renewables was a hint about how—how the offshore wind industry will most effectively get costs down and get projects online.

It comes down, in part, to letting developers and manufacturers know what we expect of them and where we want to head together: signposts, and visibility. As a 2016 study on offshore wind costs put it,

The key… is making a firm commitment to scale so the market can do its work. By providing market visibility—the State’s commitment to a pipeline of projects over a set period—the offshore wind industry in the U.S. can deliver energy costs on the kind of downward trajectory seen in Europe.

This was the argument we and many others made in pushing for strong offshore wind commitments in Massachusetts last year.

All up and down the East Coast (and beyond), we want industry players to see their way clear to investing in those states, in this country, in ways that help bring down the costs—by setting up shop here, in one form or another, and by relying less over time on materials brought in from other, established offshore wind markets, for example.

3.     “We’ve got a great message.”

This quote, from AWEA President Tom Kiernan, is right on—and, like the two previous ones, also about economic development. And more.

In so many ways, this is a technology that practically sells itself. Or would, if people had all the facts about it—the jobs potential, the manufacturing options, the energy potential, the proximity to where so many of us need the power, the compatibility with fishing and other uses of our country’s Outer Continental Shelf—and if costs keep dropping so impressively. It is a great message.

AWEA Offshore Wind 2017

4.     “We think this is a race we can win.”

The conference was held in New York City, and the keynote speaker was NY Lt. Governor Karen Hochul. And the lt. governor threw down the gauntlet, in no uncertain terms.

The race she was talking about wasn’t the contest between us and the increasing effects of climate change. It was about the race to become the center of America’s offshore wind activity, or even the world’s.

Lt. Gov. Hochul laid out three reasons why New York will serve as the “preeminent global hub” for offshore wind in this country. According to her: wind is not a political issue in New York (it enjoys bipartisan support), the Empire State embraces innovation, and the state is laying down the building blocks (“smoothing the road for you”), with the forthcoming New York Offshore Wind Master Plan that they previewed at the conference.

Credit: J. Rogers

Good arguments, all. But Massachusetts isn’t yielding. At the same conference the Bay State unveiled a new study of ports and infrastructure—in particular, waterfront properties “that could be acquired and potentially improved through private investment to become suitable facilities for a number of offshore wind activities.” And don’t think they’re thinking about those facilities serving only Massachusetts markets…

Maryland isn’t ceding ground, either, or Rhode Island—first-to-offshore-wind Rhode Island—or New Jersey (once they have a new governor), or…

While some cooperation will be useful to make sure that activities in different states complement each other to the extent possible, that competition can be a powerful motivator.

5.     “There is a transition… ongoing and we all should be part of it.”

This quote is from Michael Olsen of Statoil Wind US, the company developing the newly named “Empire Wind” farm off NYC and Long Island, and it sums it up. Offshore wind is happening, with more than 14,000 megawatts of offshore wind outside the US, in 13 countries and two continents. The 30 megawatts installed last year off Rhode Island was part of an 18% increase in wind farm capacity globally in 2016. And there’s lots more on the way.

For American jobs, for American energy, for American security, for our environment… we should indeed be part of it.

Photo: Erika Spanger-Siegfried/UCS

Diana Furchtgott-Roth Is a Terrible Choice for the DOT Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology

U.S. Department of Transportation headquarters

The line of political nominees for high-level positions in the federal agencies continues to slowly march through Congress. One of several nominees up for debate in the Senate this week is President Trump’s pick to lead the Department of Transportation Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology (OST-R), Diana Furchtgott-Roth.

As someone concerned about the direction of the progressive transportation policy passed under the Obama Administration, Furchtgott-Roth couldn’t be a more troubling pick. Her background and regressive views on public policy make it clear that she has been chosen for this role not because she is a transportation policy expert, but because she is a hard-line conservative economist who can develop, find, and promote research that makes the case for eliminating DOT programs and policy.

Furchtgott-Roth’s views are antithetical to the mission of the DOT Office of Research and Technology

The stated mission of the OST-R is to “transform transportation and make our transportation system safer, more efficient, competitive and sustainable.” To meet this goal, the OST-R five year strategic plan focuses on promoting safety, improving mobility, improving infrastructure, and preserving the environment, which includes addressing the effects of transportation activities on climate change.

Furchtgott-Roth is not known for having expertise on any of these issues. Instead, she is best known for her views on the minimum wage (against), the gender pay gap (a myth), and unions (strong pass). She has also argued that female secret service agents can’t protect the President as well as male agents, climate change is a natural phenomenon, and fuel economy standards kill people. How wonderful! Overall, her career-long campaign against feminism, labor rights and public health make her a concerning candidate in charge of public policy at any level, but especially at the main research arm of the DOT charged with examining transportation-related impacts on the environment, public health, and personal mobility.

Furchtgott-Roth has little experience that is relevant to the DOT Office of Research and Technology

The relevant experience Furchtgott-Roth brings to the table for this role is limited to writing a few articles and blog posts for right-wing think tanks criticizing Obama’s transportation policies. She is an economist by training, a former staffer in the U.S. Department of Labor (and incidentally also formerly managed by current DOT Secretary Elaine Chao, when Chao was the DOL Secretary–#draintheswamp, indeed!), and current senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a think-tank whose mission is to foster greater economic choice and individual responsibility (read: get rid of government policy and environmental safeguards). She has no direct experience in transportation-related roles, nor any experience in transportation issues outside of her general anti-regulation commentary.

She herself has a tough time commenting on any relevant experience. Here is what she wrote in response to a Senate questionnaire that asks, “what in your background or employment experience do you believe affirmatively qualifies you for appointment…”

“Nothing is more important to the economic health of America than getting the private sector involved in rebuilding the Nation’s infrastructure. As an economist with over 30 years of experience, I have studied the provision of infrastructure and transportation extensively. I have written articles on transportation issues and on regulation. In addition, I have managed staffs at the Council of Economic Advisers, at the Department of Labor, and at the Manhattan Institute. I have reviewed hundreds of papers and articles to determine their quality and suitability for publication.”

How in the world is any of that either specific enough to be relevant, or related to the mission of the OST-R?

If Furchtgott-Roth was nominated for a role in the DOL, or as an economic advisor, perhaps that would make sense. But for someone with an extensive background in labor and economic issues, not transportation issues, running the DOT OST-R is a bad fit.

Furchtgott-Roth doesn’t use data to tell the full story

Like many political commentators, Furchtgott-Roth doesn’t use data to tell the whole story. Instead, she cherry picks data from studies that best support her argument, without referencing data that supports any counter argument or data that provides a more comprehensive view of any issue. This approach may be appropriate as a bombastic conservative commentator, but not for the person in charge of providing policymakers with impartial, robust data on transportation issues.

For example, Furchtgott-Roth has argued that federal fuel efficiency standards are a bad idea because they literally kill people by requiring automakers to make cars lighter, and therefore less safe. In her book, Regulating to Disaster: How Green Jobs Policies Are Damaging America’s Economy, she writes “for the government, saving fuel is more important than saving lives. It prefers to pay in blood to save oil.”

Now, if you look at the 1,200-page technical report prepared by the EPA and DOT in advance of finalizing the 2017-2025 federal fuel efficiency standards, you’ll find that even though light-weighting can contribute to a car’s safety level (which is also related to a litany of other factors, weight only being one of them), the standards can be achieved and still save lives overall. This is because the standards encourage automakers to reduce the weight more from SUVs than smaller cars. Furchtgott-Roth conveniently left this fact out of her arguments against fuel efficiency standards. Oh, and you know what also kills people? CLIMATE CHANGE AND AIR POLLUTION, which the fuel efficiency standards and other EPA/DOT  vehicle policies directly address.

Evidence of Furchtgott-Roth cherry picking data also lies in her claims that climate change either isn’t happening, or is not caused by human activity. In 2015, she claimed “the Earth has been warming and cooling for millennia, certainly before the industrial revolution. It has been steadily warming since the Little Ice Age of the 1700s. Over the past 15 years, despite increasing greenhouse gas emissions, the warming by some measures has stopped.” Not only has average global temperature continued to increase since 2015, but the short plateau referred to by Furchtgott-Roth has been debunked as a myth.

Overall, Furchtgott-Roth’s misguided use of data isn’t appropriate to lead a public office in charge of reporting accurate data, and should be addressed by Congress when questioning her qualifications for the role.

 

 

Scientists to Senate: Reject Sam Clovis for USDA Science Post

For months, controversy has swirled around the Trump administration’s…shall we say…deeply flawed nominee for USDA chief scientist. A former business professor, talk radio host, and Trump campaign advisor, Sam Clovis has embraced unfounded conspiracy theories and espoused racist and homophobic views. And did I mention he has no scientific training whatsoever?

It’s true. And while Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue is standing by the nomination, thousands of the nation’s scientists are having none of it.

Experts say no way to unqualified “chief scientist”

In a highly unusual move, a group of more than 3,100 scientists and researchers—including leading experts in agriculture and food systems from all 50 states and the District of Columbia—today sent a letter to the Senate agriculture committee expressing opposition to the president’s choice to lead science at the USDA. The letter describes the nomination of the severely under-qualified Sam Clovis to be under secretary for research, education, and economics and chief scientist as “an abandonment of our nation’s commitment to scientifically-informed governance,” and calls on the Senate committee to reject it.

One of the letter’s lead signers is Dr. Mike Hamm, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems, and C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University. Dr. Hamm has a PhD in human nutrition and decades of experience at the intersection of food and agriculture, and his research interests include community-based food systems, food security, sustainable agriculture and nutrition education. In addition to his academic posts, he served as a member of the governor-appointed Michigan Food Policy Council from 2005 to 2013 and was instrumental in developing the Michigan Good Food Charter.

I asked Dr. Hamm why this nomination has him so concerned, and what the practical impacts might be if Clovis were to take charge of scientific research at the USDA.

Dr. Mike Hamm is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Regional Food Systems and C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University.

KPS: Scientists don’t usually rally by the thousands to oppose nominees for relatively obscure government positions. Why is this nomination so alarming to you personally?

MH: I was really concerned when I heard about this nomination, as were a number of colleagues. We look to the USDA as an authoritative source of scientific, economic, and statistical information about the nation’s food system, and it seemed extremely careless to put all that into the hands of an unqualified person. Also, we rely on the USDA to develop research funding programs that not only tackle issues of concern to agricultural production and the food system right now but also look for probable challenges down the road—finding solutions takes time and thoughtfulness, and it is clear to me that the nominee hasn’t demonstrated the ability to do this in a scientific manner.

KPS: This under secretary position holds the purse strings for $3 billion in annual research grants to universities and other institutions. How significant is that investment in the universe of agricultural and food systems research?

MH: It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this. Whether it’s developing strategies to improve current yields while reducing environmental impacts of agricultural production, or identifying resilience strategies for increasingly prevalent issues, the person in this position has to be both reactive to current events and proactive about likely future scenarios. The under secretary controls the budget for this very broad range of research needs.

KPS: What worries you most about the prospect of the USDA going backward on science?

MH: The breadth of knowledge we now have on a wide range of strategies for agricultural production and the food system is remarkable. We know a great deal about strategies for producing a greater variety and quantity of crops under different conditions and with increasingly agro-ecosystem strategies. To lose this momentum would be a disservice to the agricultural community and to consumers and the general public. Whether it’s water use in California, Texas, and other water challenged states, or late frosts for tart cherries in Michigan, we can ‘see’ an increasing range of challenges in the near future. Going backwards means not thinking about these. Going backwards means not looking for ever more ecologically sound solutions to emerging issues and recognizing that we can often improve the situation to a range of societal issues while improving agriculture. This is frightening.

Scientists speak…but is the Senate listening?

Ecologist Irit Altman speaks to a staff person for Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) in August about the need for a qualified chief scientist to oversee USDA research on climate change and agriculture.

Scientists and their allies around the country have been mobilizing for months to oppose Clovis’s nomination. They’ve published letters to the editor in newspapers across the country, including Chicago, Illinois; Bloomington, Indiana (paywall); Wichita, Kansas; Missoula and Great Falls, Montana; Scottsbluff, Nebraska; Nashville, Tennessee; and Spokane, Washington. They’ve also met with Senate staff and delivered petitions from UCS supporters directly to key Senate offices in Maine, Colorado, and Ohio (see photos from the Maine petition delivery below).

Dr. Altman was joined by local Maine farmers Lindsey and Jake Roche in delivering a petition opposing the Clovis nomination to Senator Collins.

Sam Clovis to (finally) get a hearing

Today’s letter comes as the Senate agriculture committee is expected to announce that it will hold a long-awaited hearing on November 9 to hear directly from the nominee, and to dig into Clovis’s credentials and suitability for the chief scientist position. While many Senators, including key Senate leaders, have expressed opposition to the Clovis nomination, others are still uncommitted or even supportive.

Those Senators had better think hard about it, because the scientific community is watching. As 3,100+ experts have now told them, “We expect that when your committee evaluates Clovis’ record and qualifications, you will similarly conclude that he is unfit for this position.”

ACTION NEEDED! The time to act is now, and we can win this fight. The scientists’ letter has been delivered to the Senate, but you can still tell the Senate to reject the Clovis nomination.

Use UCS’s new call-back tool to make a phone call to your senator’s office, or send a personalized email today!

New Bill Puts Environmental Justice Right Where It Belongs: Front and Center

Flooding from Hurricane Harvey.

One of the most satisfying aspects of working for the Union of Concerned Scientists is that I get to help amplify and support the demands of environmental justice and other climate-vulnerable communities in their quest to obtain equitable protection under law from environmental hazards.

As a person of color, I am proud to see UCS partnering with environmental justice communities like t.e.j.a.s., Environmental Justice Health Alliance, and Delaware Concerned Residents for Environmental Justice. We’re helping research, document, amplify, offer policy advice on, and in some cases litigate, the ways in which environmental injustices disproportionately expose low-income communities of color to dangerous toxic chemicals, climate change, water and air pollution, to name a few.

That’s why I am excited to announce UCS’ endorsement of the Environmental Justice Act of 2017, S. 1996/ H.R. 4114, sponsored by Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Representative Raúl Ruiz (D-CA). It is important to recognize that this legislation was developed by Senator Booker and Congressman Ruiz working directly with grassroots environmental justice advocates.

The Environmental Justice Act of 2017 not only codifies Executive Order 12898 and the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC); it places environmental justice at the forefront of our governmental considerations for permitting, development, and data gathering. The act mandates that maps and tools to assess environmental inequities be made publicly available at all times and requires the consideration of cumulative impacts in federal and state permitting decisions, making sure no community will be overburdened by, for example, petrochemical refineries or other toxic pollution sources. The bill also codifies environmental justice in the National Environmental Policy Act and increases data collection efforts of environmental hazards in vulnerable communities.

If the EJ Act of 2017 is implemented, communities will be given more opportunity for input on what facilities and pollution are allowed in their neighborhoods. Each agency would be required to receive comments by community members on design and implementation of research strategies. There is also a new method of redress for communities, and individual citizens will be able to file a private right to action for discriminatory practices under the Civil Rights Act.

In a time when the administration is rolling back environmental justice and environmental protection, UCS is glad to support the efforts of Senator Booker and Representative Ruiz to make sure that the environmental and public health of our nation is equitably distributed.

Pruitt Rejects Advice from Independent Scientists Based on False Premises

This week Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to issued a new directive, following up on his speech at the Heritage Foundation, that bans scientists with EPA grants from serving on the agency’s science advisory committee (see coverage here ). I want to share my perspective as a scientist who has served on numerous boards and panels advising government.

Mr. Pruitt’s rationale for making this decision rests on a set of false premises about science, grants and even the role of advisory boards. Given his record as administrator so far, this move is not surprising, but it is still damaging. In effect it means that the head of the agency is explicitly turning his back on independent science to guide his decisions.

“Balance” is needed in science advice: false

Mr. Pruitt seems to believe that a science advisory board needs a balance of opinions, as if it is a political body. In my experience as a science advisor, that’s not the job. The role of a science board is not to negotiate among different interest groups.

Boards exist to evaluate scientific evidence. The only balance needed is among different types of scientific expertise. Scientists can come from any sector, but there is no balance needed between their home institutions. This is even explicit in the EPA SAB’s 2017 Membership Balance Plan and Charter, which defines balance as members providing a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.”

There are many other steps in the process of deciding on a public policy option that enable interest groups such as industry, state and local governments, tribal governments, public interest organizations or affected residents to present their views. But the scientific evidence is not the place to incorporate those views and attempt to “balance” them. The weight of any piece of scientific evidence, and therefore advice, is a technical matter, not a political one.

Scientists who receive grants from the agency are conflicted: false

The fundamental premise of Pruitt’s action is that independent scientists (e.g. from universities or other research institutions) that receive grants from the agency ALL have an inherent conflict of interest that means their scientific views cannot be trusted. On the other hand, those who work for regulated industries with a direct financial stake in specific public policies shouldn’t be viewed as conflicted necessarily. This makes no sense. It turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head and misconstrues how grants work.

Research grants result from the agency putting out a general call for proposals on a topic that is important to the (usually long-term) work of the agency. Scientists submit proposals for research within the topic. They do not promise specific results. Rather, the researchers propose how new evidence will be obtained using appropriate scientific methods.

A grant proposal is evaluated by other scientists, usually from inside and outside the agency, for the appropriateness of the research questions, methods and likely usefulness of the knowledge developed for increasing understanding of how the world works. Proposals are ranked based on these criteria and then the program within the agency that issued the call for proposals makes a decision on which grants to fund based on the rankings and the resources available. It would be unusual and inappropriate for agency political staff to intervene in decisions on which proposals to fund.

When Mr. Pruitt says some researchers have received “millions of dollars” he is falsely giving the impression that the agency is shelling out big bucks for a scientist’s loyalty. It doesn’t work that way.

Grant funds are primarily used to support graduate students and research fellows or staff, as well as laboratory or field work. While some salary support may be covered for an faculty member, it isn’t some huge income driver for most.

The agency is not “buying” an opinion. It is supporting new research. The results may support, undermine or have no impact on agency decisions. So how can that possibly be a conflict of interest? It isn’t. Perhaps in Mr. Pruitt’s world, as he is an attorney, one only pays for a known opinion and you never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. But that isn’t how science works.

Why only grants to academic scientists?

Mr. Pruitt’s directive is nothing if not half-baked, like a cookie you really shouldn’t eat. He only refers to grants to university scientists it seems. But what about grants to states or tribes? Does that mean all of their scientists should be precluded from serving as advisors? Those grants are much larger than research grants. And what about contracts for services? Should all those scientists be precluded? Or what about industry scientists that are co-investigators on grants? Are they out too? Just where is it that he thinks his science advice should come from?

I suppose it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Administrator Pruitt really would prefer not to have any science advice. After all, he has already indicated that the budget for science advisory boards should be cut way back so that few meetings can be held. Now he wants to eliminate from consideration most of the scientists in the country who have expertise on the issues confronting the agency. I suppose that not weighing the scientific evidence would make decisions like the one he made to not ban a dangerous pesticide easier to justify. And it would fit in well with the industry playbook effort to cast doubt on science to avoid public health and safety protections.

But in the spirit of Halloween, I must ask, what is so scary about independent science? Really Mr. Pruitt, it won’t hurt you to save some lives by relying on science.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

Pages