EPA advisory panels – experts need not apply?

Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recently implemented a new policy banning scientists who receive EPA grant money from serving on its advisory committees. In many cases, independent university scientists, who are leading experts in their fields, will be replaced with advisors funded by the oil, chemical and waste disposal industries—the very industries EPA is supposed to regulate to protect public health.

Stacking these panels with industry players puts the public’s health at risk because it undermines EPA’s ability to make sound, science-based decisions without undue influence from those who stand to profit from EPA’s decisions.

There are a number of different committees that advise EPA. A particularly important one is the Science Advisory Board (SAB), charged with peer reviewing the scientific basis of EPA’s policy decisions on environmental pollutants. While many reports have focused on how Pruitt’s policy affects the SAB, the policy affects all EPA advisory committees, including the Children’s Health Protection Advisory Committee (CHPAC). Removing top scientists who have critical public health expertise in favor of industry-funded advisors who have argued, amongst other things, that children are less vulnerable to toxic chemicals than adults – a view so far outside of mainstream science it is safe to call it patently false – is a not-so-thinly veiled attempt to shift the goal of EPA’s decisions from protecting health to protecting industry sales.

Pruitt’s advisory board policy and attendant comments push the false narrative that scientists who receive federal grants try to advance a political agenda. This could not be further from the truth. As a scientist who receives federal grant money, I can attest to the rigorous peer review process every grant proposal must endure. This process ensures the scientific methods proposed are appropriate and sound, which is critical to creating an unbiased scientific study.  Additionally, reviewers evaluate the scientific expertise of the investigator applying for the grant – including whether the scientist is participating in the scientific process through publication of peer-reviewed science in respected journals. This ‘double vetting’ ensures that scientists of the highest caliber receive federal money to investigate critical questions relevant to environment, health and welfare using the proper approaches and methods. This process helps ensure that we have preeminent scientists carrying out EPA-funded research using current, innovative methods in an unbiased way.

Contrast this with whom Administrator Pruitt is proposing to put on panels: industry representatives he calls ‘financially independent’ from the Agency. This is twisted logic because these same representatives are financially dependent on industries, such as the chemical industry, that stand to make significant monetary gains if EPA weakens protections. Scientists paid by the chemical industry have a direct financial stake in the outcome of EPA policy decisions, and are not ‘independent.’ Indeed, documents from a recent court case against Monsanto show that ‘scientific experts’ were paid thousands of dollars to publish papers with outcomes predetermined by the company. These “studies” were then used to advocate for industry positions on the science, such as disputing the human health harms of toxic chemicals (see pp.127-129 of the document here).

Finally, notably missing from Pruitt’s appointees are representatives of those disproportionately affected by environmental chemicals, such as workers, tribes, and families from contaminated communities. PRHE made this point in comments to EPA twice this year.

While science has been under unprecedented attack at EPA there is good news. As Washington bows to industry, states and localities are starting to legislate their own bans on chemicals harmful to health, such as flame retardants. Scientific evidence confirms the health and economic benefits of clean air and water protections. And independent scientists and communities continue to document the effects toxic chemicals have on our health, such as deaths from the use of methylene chloride paint stripper or the increase in miscarriages and stillbirths in Flint, Michigan after the water supply became contaminated with lead.

These findings unmask the very clear connection between health and the environment. They also reveal why scientific integrity and independent science are vital to sound policy-making at all levels of government.