Americans need the best science more than ever from government

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The backbone of environmental decisions has always been independent science. But all that changed three years ago with a directive from then administrator Scott Pruitt that has distorted the peer review process for the Environmental Protection Agency. As a former director for the office tasked with leading the main independent science advisory groups, the Science Advisory Board and the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, such action is painful to see as the current leaders of the Environmental Protection Agency stack the decks against objective science.

The tradition valued across administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, was to secure high quality independent peer reviews, as scientists from industry, academia, and state governments looked at the strengths and limitations of the information used by the Environmental Protection Agency, and provided their own data and perspectives. This is standard and builds confidence in the foundation of policy. Though leaders at the Environmental Protection Agency did not always like the objective ideas from reviewers, there were no attempts to block these voices.

But Pruitt started to gerrymander the science on which the Environmental Protection Agency would base its decisions. This started when term limits for the members of the Science Advisory Board were cut from six years to three years, defying the value of continuity and institutional memory, but doubling the turnover rate. Any member with an active government grant was terminated. Such illegal efforts ensured potential new members with grants were excluded from consideration, but no such restriction applied for scientists with grants from industry and special interests.

There was little done that ensured members represented the diversity of expertise. But science is a process of reasoned questioning. Every panel assembled during my tenure included respected scientists, and all were essential to publishing a high quality and credible review that would be accepted by both the scientific community and the public. For instance, the panel for the hydraulic fracturing drinking water impact review had more than two dozen scientists who collectively have over 200 years of experience supported by industry and government leaders.

In the months after my retirement two years ago, rumors circulated about a further round of changes to the peer review process. I then learned that the original Clean Air Science Advisory Committee of 22 members, which was assembled with the expertise necessary for a high quality review of a critical clean air protection, was replaced by the narrower panel of seven members. The new chairman has a history of expressing positions outside of mainstream science, and he used his position of power to aggressively push his minority views and significantly dominate debates.

Members of the terminated panel, joined by other former members, sent concerns with eight findings and over 40 recommendations. Many of the members of the terminated panel elected to share these critical scientific concerns that those numerous changes to the national ambient air quality review process are collectively harmful to the integrity of the system, that the reduced time of the particulate matter review is not sufficient to be as thorough as it is required, and that the reconstituted panel does not have the depth or breadth of expertise to issue a credible review.

With their summary letter, the new panel admitted they did not have the qualifications for a high quality review. They recommended reconvening the original panel or creating another panel with experts. But in spite of this notion, they issued a final review. How is that possible?

Working hard to stack the deck and gerrymander science is not the way to make informed decisions that protect the health of Americans. Now more than ever, for this time of the coronavirus, we need government decisions to be informed with sound science in order to protect as many Americans as possible. Americans deserve leaders who would prioritize independent science and health while determining environmental policy.

Chris Zarba is the former director of the Environmental Protection Agency Science Advisory Board Staff Office and is a member of the Environmental Protection Network, a volunteer organization of past government officials.

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