Energy & Environment

Courts again side with scientists after EPA blocked grantees from serving on its boards

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Scientists for the third time in two months won their case against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which under Scott Pruitt had barred those who received agency grants from serving on any of its boards. 

U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday sided with Physicians for Social Responsibility and other groups who had challenged the 2017 decision. 

Former Administrator Pruitt had argued scientists who had already received funding from the agency would have a conflict of interest, disrupting their ability to offer sound scientific advice on any number of committees that advise the agency.

But a three-judge panel for the circuit said the policy incorrectly conflicts with the longstanding practice of allowing grant recipients to serve on scientific committees.  

“The directive itself agrees that ‘it is in the public interest to select the most qualified, knowledgeable, and experienced candidates.’ Yet the directive nowhere confronts the possibility that excluding grant recipients—that is, individuals who EPA has independently deemed qualified enough to receive competitive funding—from advisory committees might exclude those very candidates,” Judge David Tatel wrote for the panel.

A court made a similar ruling on a case just last week filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“The EPA’s deficiencies in instituting the directive were serious,” U.S. District Judge Denise Cote wrote in a decision, noting “the EPA had failed to articulate any reason for changing its longstanding practice of permitting EPA grant recipients to serve on EPA advisory committees.”

EPA said it would not comment on the pending litigation but previously told The Hill it was reviewing the various decisions blocking its policy.

“We continue to litigate this issue in several courts and believe that the policy is a proper exercise of the administrator’s discretion to appoint board members that will provide the best possible service to the agency,” agency spokeswoman Andrea Woods previously told The Hill in a statement.

Critics say the policy skewed the types of appointees who could serve on boards, cutting out academics while industry-backed scientists were still able to serve — an argument later confirmed in a July report from the Government Accountability Office reviewing Pruitt’s policy. 

The report also found EPA did not follow the process for selecting the “best qualified and most appropriate candidates” for two committees that advise on environmental regulations and also “did not ensure that all appointees met ethics requirements.”

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