The media’s tactics to silence science at Trump’s EPA

The media’s tactics to silence science at Trump’s EPA
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Activists are whipping the media and politicians into frenzies over Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Regulation: Net neutrality supporters predict tough court battle | Watchdog to investigate EPA chief's meeting with industry group | Ex-Volkswagen exec gets 7 years for emissions cheating Overnight Energy: Watchdog probes Pruitt speech to mining group | EPA chief promises to let climate scientists present their work | Volkswagen manager gets 7 years for emissions cheating Scott Pruitt's year of environmental destruction MORE’s reforms.

The attacks employ a common narrative: EPA officials have conflicts of interests from prior employment and are now seeking to poison us to please their former chemical industry paymasters.

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A new conflict over conflicts exposes what’s really behinds the tactics.

 

On Oct. 31 Pruitt announced that current EPA grant recipients would no longer be eligible to serve on key EPA scientific advisory boards — at least not if they choose to continue receiving EPA research dollars.

Because the boards influence agency priorities, including millions of dollars in grants, the conflict of simultaneously serving on a board and being a grant recipient is obvious. But rather than applauding the move, those who have been incensed by more tenuous conflicts are seething that Pruitt is cracking down.

The move is “the equivalent of burning books that you don’t like,” according to Elena Craft, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund.  

Reactions like Craft’s are now standard fare from activists and mainstream media alike. But the allegations don’t withstand scrutiny. On Nov. 3, Pruitt reappointed Craft’s fellow fund senior scientist Jennifer McPartland to a coveted seat on the Board of Scientific Advisors. Book-burners would be appalled by the sloppiness.

Let’s be honest. There’s a clash between left and right on nearly every policy issue — for good reason. The disagreements usually stem from differing schools of thought in areas such as economics, foreign policy and yes, even environmental policy.

On environmental policy, the merits of the precautionary principle, risk assessment methodologies and the risk of unintended consequences are debates worth having.

But activists’ dogmatic approach to environmental policy, coupled with constant conflict complaints, suggests they deny the notion that there’s ever any validity to dissenting views.  

Rather than having to inform the public with complicated science policy arguments, strident groups score points for taking the low-road. 

Nancy Beck, a toxicologist specializing in risk assessment, spent nearly a decade evaluating environmental rules at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB's) Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

After her work at OMB, she put her regulatory science expertise to work in the private sector, spending five years at the leading chemical industry trade group. 

The New York Times turned the stint into what sounds like a conspiracy theory titled, "Why Has the E.P.A. Shifted on Toxic Chemicals? An Industry Insider Helps Call the Shots.”

That Beck’s regulatory approach was well-established at OMB before her work for the trade group, that her positions are scientifically grounded, and that her relevant private-sector experience could make her a better regulator seems like too much news that’s fit to print.

John Graham, who hired Beck at OMB and is now a dean at Indiana University, calls Beck a “public servant at heart.”

Even environmental scientists with opposing views acknowledge Beck’s bona fides. Pruitt critic Thomas Burke, at the Bloomberg School of Public Health admits Beck is a respected scientist. But you are more likely only to read a version of the Environmental Working Group’s claim that Beck is “The Scariest Trump Appointee You’ve Never Heard Of.”

It doesn’t end there. Democrats are now trying to block Pruitt’s choice to lead the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention, Michael Dourson.

A professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Dourson has worked for industry.

But it’s Beck’s and Dourson’s restrained regulatory approach, not alleged conflicts, that’s the source of the opposition. 

There’s good reason for big-government environmental activists to be threatened by the appointment of scientists like Beck and Dourson, as well as the removal of actually conflicted EPA advisory board members. These leading regulatory scientists with real-world experience are actually effective critics of the EPA’s flawed and even dangerous regulatory over-reach.

Expect the vile attacks on EPA officials to continue, at least so long as the tactics are rewarded. But let’s not ignore that they come with costs.

As the Wall Street Journal editorial board noted on Nov. 1, “Mr. Pruitt has received more than five times as many threats as his predecessor, Gina McCarthyGina McCarthyThe media’s tactics to silence science at Trump’s EPA Overnight Energy: EPA releases ozone findings | Lawmakers come out against Perry grid plan | Kids sue Trump on climate change Congress must come to terms on climate change regulation MORE.” The threats, some of which reference his home address, include explicit death threats.

What’s more, personal attacks in lieu of vigorous debate on the merits of opposing approaches harms us all. It undermines not only good policy-making but the environment where healthy democracy thrives.

Jeff Stier is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and heads its Risk Analysis Division. Follow him on Twitter at  @JeffAStier.