Under a rule hinted at by the Environmental Protection Agency's administrator, scientists will no longer be able to serve on its scientific advisory committees if they receive grants from the agency. According to Scott Pruitt, Trump's EPA chief, that would cause for a conflict of interest. He made no such mention with regards to individuals who represent the industries that the EPA is trusted to regulate — chemical, and oil and gas experts — and the move has much of the scientific community up in arms.
Genna Reed, a science and policy analyst at the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells Bustle that this will discourage people who have received EPA grants in the past from nominating themselves for these very important boards. "Why this is a huge issue is that it’s based on a really faulty assumption," she says. "Pruitt is essentially asserting that receiving EPA grants represents a conflict that is of more concern than industry funding, because the ethics requirements for these committees require that there is full disclosure of all funds from private, government, and other funding."
Pruitt was speaking at the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, when he mentioned the policy. He said an official directive on it will come next week. The scientists would be kept off scientific advisory committees that give the administrator scientific guidance. According to the board's charter, it should "provide independent advice and peer review to EPA's Administrator on the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues."
Pruitt wants to ensure there's a certain kind of person appointed. "If we have individuals who are on those boards receiving money from the agency ... that to me causes question on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way," he said at the Heritage Foundation.
The type of person that Pruitt is going for sounds great, it's just not, according to critics. He said, "I think what’s most important at the agency is to have advisers, scientific advisers, that are objective, independent-minded, providing transparent recommendations to me as the administrator and to our office, on decisions we’re making on the efficacy of rules that we’re passing to address environmental issues."
Scientists and their advocates see it differently. Reed says that Pruitt's understanding of how EPA grants work is wrong. "That’s a misunderstanding of EPA’s grants. Researchers receive funds from the EPA to address research questions, and they’re by no means political," she says. "When they're researching these questions, there’s no presumption that they will come to any conclusion that the work that they’re doing for the EPA is work that would promote science in the public interest."
Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote a blog post on the issue Tuesday. His fear is pretty representative:
Such a gobsmackingly boneheaded move would further hamstring the ability of the EPA to accomplish its public health mission. The administrator is directly challenging the intent of Congress, which established the Science Advisory Board to provide independent scientific advice so that EPA can effectively protect our health and environment.
He noted that in the past, the advisory board had been able to act as a control on the political influence in the EPA. "There are plenty of extremely well-qualified, universally respected candidates who can provide scientific advice to an administrator who really needs it," Halpern wrote, comparing their advice on science to Stephen Curry's on basketball.
There was similar talk of this kind of action earlier in the year, but in the form of a bill, not a directive. The Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act would have accomplished the same thing, limiting scientists but allowing people with ties to industry serve as long as they disclose them. At the time, Yogin Kothari, a scientific integrity advocate, also with the Union of Concerned Scientists told the New Republic that the plan was "bananas."
"They’re basically saying that people who are experts in environmental science, who have spent their careers working on this and may have received EPA grants to do their work, are inherently conflicted, whereas people who are working in the industry, who would be impacted by the board’s advice, are not conflicted," Kothari told the New Republic.
Now, with Pruitt's pending directives, others are speaking out. "Pruitt’s purge has a single goal: get rid of scientists who tell us the facts about threats to our environment and health,” Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement to The Washington Post.
The debate will likely continue until Pruitt takes a step by actually issuing that directive. If you feel strongly about an independent EPA, contact your senators and representative.
Reed and her colleagues are worried about what this means for the EPA under Trump. "I think it’s more about the way in which the Administrator is working to undermine the role of independent science advice within the agency," Reed says. "It’s to discourage individuals from serving on these advisory boards in order to leave room for individuals that might come to conclusions that are more favorable to Pruitt’s political motivations."