The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report analyzing the member appointment process and practices for EPA’s advisory committees. The report describes a sharp decrease in the number of university researchers serving on key advisory committees over the first 15 months of the Trump Administration. These advisory committees play an essential role in providing expert, independent advice on the scientific information used by EPA to carry out its mission of protecting public health and the environment.
In an Oct. 31, 2017 directive, then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt redefined excluded academic scientists from serving on expert advisory committees by redefining “conflict of interest” to include receiving a grant from EPA. This exclusion of grant recipients mostly affects academic experts who routinely receive government funding for research. The directive also recommended balancing regional representation on the committees.
The number of university researchers on the Science Advisory Board went from 36 in January 2017 to just 22 in March 2018. The panel had between 44 and 47 members during that period. The EPA Board of Scientific Counselors experienced a similar decrease in university researchers during that period, from 11 of 17 members in January 2017, to 3 of 15 members in March 2018.
Changes to these advisory committees could have a direct, tangible effect on health-based air pollution standards. For example, the current chair of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee is Dr. Tony Cox, an industry consultant. He has proposed a new framework to limit what scientific studies EPA and the panels would consider valid when setting the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Rather than analyze the weight of scientific evidence available to study the effects of pollutants, his proposal would limit EPA’s consideration only to those studies that show direct evidence that a regulation or reduction in pollutant exposure leads to a health benefit. This narrowing of consideration would eliminate entire categories of scientific inquiry from use as evidence to set standards. Should EPA adopt this new approach, it will certainly reduce the efficacy of air pollution standards.
Pruitt’s changed eligibility rules for these committees makes it more important than ever to follow the vetting process for new members, as people who may not have the expertise associated with academic affiliations are filling more of the spots. A key step in the vetting process is for EPA’s expert staff to document rationales for candidates’ proposed membership to ensure that the candidates who are appointed are qualified and that committee membership is balanced across a range of expertise areas. It is also crucial, especially in light of the new openings for industry affiliates, to verify that members appointed as special government employees (SGE) disclose their financial interests and meet federal ethics requirements.
The GAO report found that “EPA generally followed its established process for most of its 22 advisory committees; however, …[t]he 2018 appointment packets for…two committees [the EPA Science Advisory Board and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee] did not contain documents reflecting EPA staff rationales for proposed membership, as called for by EPA’s established process.”
In connection with ethics requirements, GAO reported: “For about 23 percent, or 17 of the 74 financial disclosure forms GAO reviewed, an ethics official had not signed and dated that the SGE filing the form was in compliance with federal ethics rules. EPA also did not periodically review its ethics program, as called for by federal regulations, such as through audits or spot-checks, to evaluate the quality of financial disclosure reviews for SGEs.”
The GAO concluded, “Until EPA’s Ethics Office evaluates the quality of financial disclosure reviews of SGEs as part of its periodic review of its ethics program, it will not have reasonable assurance that it will address noncompliance with federal ethics requirements and prevent conflicts of interest on its advisory committees.”
The GAO report also notes that regional representation has shifted in favor of members from the region between Delaware and Texas. The report provides data reflecting a rough balance of representation between the four U.S. Census regions from January 2009 to January 2017. Since then, representation from the region between Delaware and Texas has increased “from 28 percent (13 of 47 members) on January 19, 2017, to 52 percent (23 of 44 members) about 15 months later on March 31, 2018.”
Congressional Response and Hearings
Senators Thomas Carper (D-DE) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) led the group of Democrats who requested the GAO report. In response to the GAO report, Senator Carper said “This is not a trivial issue, but a serious problem that has profound consequences for enforcement and regulatory actions across the agency.” Senator Whitehouse added, “This report shows that the Trump administration rigged influential advisory boards to favor its polluter backers.”
In addition two subcommittees of the House Science Committee recently held a hearing titled “EPA Advisory Committees: How Science Should Inform Decisions.” The Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight & the Subcommittee on Environment have posted a video of the hearing that can be watched here.
The hearing included testimony from Mr. J. Alfredo Gomez, the lead author of the GAO report. He elaborated in his testimony that “EPA did not follow its established committee appointment process” and “EPA did not consistently ensure that committee members . . . met federal ethics requirements.”
The hearing included testimony from the following:
- Mr. J. Alfredo Gomez, Director, Natural Resources and Environment, U.S. Government Accountability Office: Testimony Link
- Dr. Thomas A. Burke, PhD, MPH, Jacob I. and Irene B. Fabrikant Professor and Chair in Health Risk and Society, Bloomberg School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins University: Testimony Link
- Dr. Deborah Swackhamer, Professor Emerita, Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota: Testimony Link
- Dr. Jonathan Samet, MD, MS, Dean, Colorado School of Public Health: Testimony Link
Altogether, the Trump Administration’s efforts present a dangerous threat to the scientific stature of EPA. This GAO report reveals a variety of unprecedented threats to EPA’s ability to maintain that status and act according to the best available science.
For more information on how EPA on other changes to science at EPA, visit our other posts, including:
- Removing Academic Scientists from Science Advisory Panels
- Appointing a Climate Change Skeptic to EPA’s Advisory Committee
- Limiting Expertise in EPA’s Review of the Air Quality Standards
- Legal Shortcomings in EPA’s So-Called “Secret Science” Proposed Rule
This post was edited for clarity on Jan. 28, 2020.