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EPA's Scott Pruitt isn't helping his conflict-of-interest image

EPA's Scott Pruitt isn't helping his conflict-of-interest image
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Earlier this week, EPA Administrator Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittMcConnell and wife confronted by customers at restaurant EPA puts science ‘transparency’ rule on back burner Tucker Carlson says he 'can't really' dine out anymore because people keep yelling at him MORE announced a policy declaring that recipients of EPA grants could no longer serve on several EPA scientific advisory committees.  Given the widespread presence of industry representatives and former industry lobbyists in Pruitt’s EPA, and across the Trump administration, the Pruitt announcement was greeted with calls of hypocrisy.

In previous administrations, steps were taken to minimize the role of industry officials in serving in and advising regulatory agencies such as EPA. It is tempting to claim “both sides do it” here, with “it” being barring those who disagree with your preferred policies and opening doors for those who agree with it.  But the differences between this administration and its predecessors are real.  

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Scientists who work or lobby for industry are paid to advocate a particular position in scientific debates. It is nearly inconceivable that a representative of a chemical company would publish a study that shows that a product made by her employer was hazardous (or more hazardous than the employer was willing to admit). If they are in the employ of the company while working in an advisory role to a federal agency, then it is reasonable to think that their advice to the agency will be similarly constrained.

Scientists who receive grants from an agency face a different set of incentives, however.  Grant applications for most agencies (and this is true for many EPA grants) go through a blind peer review process which helps determine the recipient of the grant. The grant money is not contingent upon the recipient finding a particular result. Hence, advisors to EPA who are grant recipients have less of an incentive to provide biased advice than those employed by industry.

This isn’t to imply that grant recipients are completely neutral providers of advice. A scientist who applies to EPA for grant funds is likely be predisposed toward finding environmental hazards. There may be no overt attempt to judge questions in a particular way but where there is doubt in resolving a scientific question regarding an environmental risk, they may be more likely to conclude in a manner that favors emphasizing the risk.

Similarly, there is value in regulatory agencies hearing from industry scientists. Contrary to public perception, scientific questions that are relevant to policy-making don’t always have clear answers.  And scientists from industry, because they understand the chemicals their firms manufacture better than anyone, can provide unique information. EPA and other agencies are well served in incorporating their input.

A process for providing advice to regulatory agencies should have certain properties. It should be designed to give agencies a full variety of perspectives on the questions the agency will be facing.  Its members should be required to disclose all potential conflicts of interest. And (as required by law), their meetings must be open to the public.

Pruitt’s declaration violates the first of these principles. It ensures that some of the individuals who, because of their expertise, may best understand an environmental issue, will be barred from advising EPA on the questions before it.

By focusing on an alleged conflict of interest that is unlikely to bias advisors, Pruitt leaves observers with the impression that it is not curbing conflicts of interest he is interested in but rather in getting only the advice he wants to hear. And it fits into a general impression that this administration is conducting a “war on science.”

Stuart Shapiro is professor and director of the Public Policy Program at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Follow him on Twitter @shapiro_stuart.