Trump’s EPA replaced scientists with industry advisors under the guise of ‘conflicts of interest’

Trump’s EPA replaced scientists with industry advisors under the guise of ‘conflicts of interest’
© Greg Nash

It’s not a good week to be Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittOvernight Energy: Rate of new endangered species listings falls | EPA approves use of 'cyanide bombs' to protect livestock | Watchdog says EPA didn't conduct required analyses EPA didn't conduct required analyses of truck engine rule: internal watchdog Is Big Oil feeling the heat? MORE’s travel agent. The news coverage around the EPA administrator’s costly spending on first-class flights has gotten so bad that even Republicans are getting critical: House Oversight Chairman Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyFive landmark moments of testimony to Congress Conway spars with Wallace on whether White House will cooperate with impeachment inquiry after formal vote Gowdy: I '100 percent' still believe public congressional hearings are 'a circus' MORE (R- S.C.) sent a letter to the EPA this week requesting information on Pruitt’s travel expenses.

Pruitt’s tendency to abuse taxpayer funds as he travels is, of course, concerning. But his penchant for pricy flights must not distract from the more drastic actions he’s taking at the EPA to undermine science itself. They’re far more troubling.

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When I told Pruitt that I would not resign from my position on a scientific advisory board last fall and he was “welcome to officially fire me,” I, unsurprisingly, got a lot of public feedback. It was heartening to receive an outpouring of support for my decision to push back against Pruitt’s directive forbidding agency-funded scientists serving on advisory boards. Unfortunately, Pruitt’s ban remains in place, and science-guided advising at the agency is in danger.

 

The importance of protecting science at the EPA is why there have been multiple lawsuits filed to overturn Pruitt’s directive, including one which I joined at the end of 2017. The directive is duplicative and unethical at best — and illegal at worst. Rigorous conflict of interest procedures and policies are already in place at the EPA to ensure that objective scientific advice is provided to the agency through the various advisory boards. These disclosures include conflicts that may be financial in nature (a scientist must disclose when she receives funding to work on a certain topic, for instance, or if she has testified on a related matter).

With a focus on public funding, Pruitt’s directive completely fails to address the conflict of interest at stake when industry scientists are providing advice on issues that may cost their employers millions of dollars. Receiving federal funding for research is a mark of an excellent scientific mind, not a sign of bias. Scientists whom the agency has identified as the most capable of addressing its most challenging problems should not be banned from bringing that expertise to the review process.

However, judging by some recent media coverage and questions I’ve received, I fear the public may now be getting the wrong impression of the role of Science Advisory Boards (SAB) and the practicality of what it means to serve on such a board.

If you believe Pruitt, then we are money-hungry scientists who will provide advice in a manner that ensures access to future funding. On the other hand, Pruitt claims that the industry experts he chose to replace us are supposedly unbiased, even when asked to weigh in on whether or not their own industry should be regulated. It is hard to know where to start with such a backward accusation. 

Pruitt’s directive is based on an inverted perception of conflict of interest. Those of us from universities who serve do so because we believe we have an obligation to ensure that policy is informed by the best available science. Despite claims from Pruitt and industry allies, I have never considered my current or future funding opportunities when providing advice on the federal science advisory boards on which I serve over the last several years.

Those of us who participate in this capacity are clearly dedicated to this public service, because we are basically asking for extra, often unpaid homework. In preparation for each meeting — occurring approximately three times a year — members of the SAB spend several hours reviewing draft reports, which inform potential agency rulemaking on a topic.

The SAB then discusses the drafts and determines whether or not the report is an accurate summary of the science. This entire process is public and anyone who is interested can both comment on the reports in advance or in person at the meeting, as well as attend the meeting to hear what most consider an exceptionally dry and technical discussion. 

There are two types of people who would volunteer to be part of these science policy discussions: those who are paid by industry to protect their profits, and those who recognize the importance of science for public policy. 

While most of us in that second group want to ensure that agency decision makers have unbiased advice on how to best protect public health, one of Pruitt’s new advisors said in 2012 that the air “is a little too clean for optimum health.”

Would you trust a salesperson who said your old car is a little too safe, a banker who says your money is a little too secure, or a doctor who says you’re too healthy?

Apparently, Pruitt would.  

Robyn Wilson is a professor of risk analysis and decision science at The Ohio State University. Wilson is involved in one of the lawsuits against the EPA regarding the SAB changes.