02/26/2018 - EPA Mission Tracker

Removing Academic Scientists from Science Advisory Panels

EPA has removed qualified academics from its advisory panels and replaced them with industry scientists and consultants – including at least one known for being a climate change skeptic.

Advisory committees provide EPA with independent, expert advice on an array of issues the agency must consider that require science-intensive analysis or judgment. These include advising the agency on setting air quality standards, determining acceptable risk levels for exposure to toxic chemicals, and studying of the impact of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.

EPA is known as an expert, science agency, and it relies on panels of independent and highly qualified scientists to complement its own resources and expertise. Scientists who serve on these panels are noted for their outstanding qualifications and for their independence from private sector businesses that EPA regulates. They are usually employees of universities or similar research institutions. These affiliations assure the agency and the public that their work is disinterested and objective.

In an unprecedented directive on Oct. 31, 2017, Administrator Pruitt removed scientists from several of these panels on the basis of a novel interpretation of what constituted a conflict of interest. He directed that no one can serve on an advisory panel if they have received a grant from EPA. This pre-condition disproportionately affects academic experts who routinely receive government funding for research.

Federal courts have long discredited this interpretation of a conflict of interest. For example, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals stated: “Working for or receiving a grant from [an agency], or co-authoring a paper with a person affiliated with the department, does not impair a scientist’s ability to provide technical, scientific peer review of a study sponsored by . . . one of its agencies.” Cargill, Inc., v. United States, 173 F. 3d 323, 339 (1999).

As a result of the new directive, membership of these committees has changed dramatically. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports that since 2017, the proportion of leading academics on the Science Advisory Board has fallen from 79% to 47% and the proportion of industry-employed scientists has risen from 6% to 22%.

For more information on changes to EPA’s advisory panels, please see:

This post was edited for clarity on Jan. 21, 2020.

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