Pruitt Rejects Advice from Independent Scientists Based on False Premises

, director, Center for Science & Democracy | October 30, 2017, 2:17 pm EST
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This week Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt is expected to issued a new directive, following up on his speech at the Heritage Foundation, that bans scientists with EPA grants from serving on the agency’s science advisory committee (see coverage here ). I want to share my perspective as a scientist who has served on numerous boards and panels advising government.

Mr. Pruitt’s rationale for making this decision rests on a set of false premises about science, grants and even the role of advisory boards. Given his record as administrator so far, this move is not surprising, but it is still damaging. In effect it means that the head of the agency is explicitly turning his back on independent science to guide his decisions.

“Balance” is needed in science advice: false

Mr. Pruitt seems to believe that a science advisory board needs a balance of opinions, as if it is a political body. In my experience as a science advisor, that’s not the job. The role of a science board is not to negotiate among different interest groups.

Boards exist to evaluate scientific evidence. The only balance needed is among different types of scientific expertise. Scientists can come from any sector, but there is no balance needed between their home institutions. This is even explicit in the EPA SAB’s 2017 Membership Balance Plan and Charter, which defines balance as members providing a “range of expertise required to assess the scientific and technical aspects of environmental issues.”

There are many other steps in the process of deciding on a public policy option that enable interest groups such as industry, state and local governments, tribal governments, public interest organizations or affected residents to present their views. But the scientific evidence is not the place to incorporate those views and attempt to “balance” them. The weight of any piece of scientific evidence, and therefore advice, is a technical matter, not a political one.

Scientists who receive grants from the agency are conflicted: false

The fundamental premise of Pruitt’s action is that independent scientists (e.g. from universities or other research institutions) that receive grants from the agency ALL have an inherent conflict of interest that means their scientific views cannot be trusted. On the other hand, those who work for regulated industries with a direct financial stake in specific public policies shouldn’t be viewed as conflicted necessarily. This makes no sense. It turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head and misconstrues how grants work.

Research grants result from the agency putting out a general call for proposals on a topic that is important to the (usually long-term) work of the agency. Scientists submit proposals for research within the topic. They do not promise specific results. Rather, the researchers propose how new evidence will be obtained using appropriate scientific methods.

A grant proposal is evaluated by other scientists, usually from inside and outside the agency, for the appropriateness of the research questions, methods and likely usefulness of the knowledge developed for increasing understanding of how the world works. Proposals are ranked based on these criteria and then the program within the agency that issued the call for proposals makes a decision on which grants to fund based on the rankings and the resources available. It would be unusual and inappropriate for agency political staff to intervene in decisions on which proposals to fund.

When Mr. Pruitt says some researchers have received “millions of dollars” he is falsely giving the impression that the agency is shelling out big bucks for a scientist’s loyalty. It doesn’t work that way.

Grant funds are primarily used to support graduate students and research fellows or staff, as well as laboratory or field work. While some salary support may be covered for an faculty member, it isn’t some huge income driver for most.

The agency is not “buying” an opinion. It is supporting new research. The results may support, undermine or have no impact on agency decisions. So how can that possibly be a conflict of interest? It isn’t. Perhaps in Mr. Pruitt’s world, as he is an attorney, one only pays for a known opinion and you never ask a question that you don’t already know the answer to. But that isn’t how science works.

Why only grants to academic scientists?

Mr. Pruitt’s directive is nothing if not half-baked, like a cookie you really shouldn’t eat. He only refers to grants to university scientists it seems. But what about grants to states or tribes? Does that mean all of their scientists should be precluded from serving as advisors? Those grants are much larger than research grants. And what about contracts for services? Should all those scientists be precluded? Or what about industry scientists that are co-investigators on grants? Are they out too? Just where is it that he thinks his science advice should come from?

I suppose it is possible, perhaps even likely, that Administrator Pruitt really would prefer not to have any science advice. After all, he has already indicated that the budget for science advisory boards should be cut way back so that few meetings can be held. Now he wants to eliminate from consideration most of the scientists in the country who have expertise on the issues confronting the agency. I suppose that not weighing the scientific evidence would make decisions like the one he made to not ban a dangerous pesticide easier to justify. And it would fit in well with the industry playbook effort to cast doubt on science to avoid public health and safety protections.

But in the spirit of Halloween, I must ask, what is so scary about independent science? Really Mr. Pruitt, it won’t hurt you to save some lives by relying on science.

Photo: Gage Skidmore/CC BY-SA (Flickr)

Posted in: Science and Democracy Tags: , , ,

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  • Joseph Yuna

    False premises – herein lies the real tragedy of climatic change – arrogant and delusional narcissistic characters like Pruitt. But compared to his climatic opponents, he is a candy store thief and not one of their anarchist violent mobs attacking anyone of a differing view. Time to kill off both amateurish sides, and start a purely scientific review of this subject over the Earth’s history, not immediate decades.

  • Biologyteacher100

    I conduct ecological research and I have served on panels that evaluate grant proposals in several foreign countries as well as the US. Thanks Andrew Rosenberg for your clear and well considered views.

  • pdxtalldan

    How is it possible this can continue? My entire 64 years as an American, I have depended on the Science that has proven to work for all of us, from my first liquid sip of the Salk vaccine, to the pig valve that extended my Army veteran father’s life by a decade. What, precisely, are We The People to do when the fox is dining on my chickens and laughing all the way to the bank? We have to stop this, and fast. We’re headed at lightspeed for the fascism we’ve all been hoping wasn’t coming. It’s here.

    • Joseph Yuna

      Fascism – you hardly know what that word means or its reality in world history. But this decade has shown your side as the violent anarchists, and NWO socialists complete with the Thought Police that reminds those of us with real world experience, not college-knowledge alone of the Nazis. We the People are not you the violent mob our founding fathers warned us about and thus used the Electorial College to make all states equal scientifically.

      As a 24 year vet from enlisted thru officer ranks and two wards, Nam and GW I, your point is not about your father, but what about you? Science as I work with has made great strides, but none of these climatic terrorists have created anything but debate and wasting taxpayers monies. Fascism is when the right, like in Italy takes charge with beatings, sadistic torture and political usurping of power under one hand using decrees. Socialism, a failed system only exceeded in barbarism by Lenin and the later USSR socialists, is more akin to the oligarchy within the DNC and their leaders.

      But for those of us who get news outside of the liberal propaganda of CNN and MSNBC, we see the Islamic wars, mass migrations, and climatic Nazis a part of a higher plan for world domination. They keep the mob’s eye on BS while their real intent to deceive, garnering more power like using a poster child, Obama to expound a global USA vice national USA, or Hillary’s claim of sexuality, wealth and racial equality when her background and party have been historically nothing but these false battle cries.

      If you have not served, then that is your issue. Speak for yourself, as your dad and I may (disabled vet yet still lasted until retirement). Climatic Nazis are a small apart of these NWO Nazis who make the worst and least productive of us think they are more than their failed selves. I overheard 2 today in a car repair place belittling a waiting customer who later turned out like I, to be a retired military officer with not just a professional degree, but a ton of worldly experience using it to build more than a bad case of political piles.

      We walked out for a smoke, and both noted how mad these younger generation are, and truly sheltered from the reality out there in the real world. With no firm baseline to adjudge climatic to immigration to economic disasters around them, we wonder how much longer we will support the college paper mills and their socialists professors indoctrination of our kids. Parents send them there to learn how to think, but instead are taught what to think. Couple that with the CNN and MSNBC propaganda, you have the present mess.

      We will not deal with the causes and survival needs of climatic changes as long as those in this arena are so egotistical and near-sighted. And perhaps since we have seen socialism beating those who supported Trump, we are in need of fascism after all to save not just the Republic we have enjoyed since 1787, but leave our children more than pompous idealization and bombastic political speeches that demonize I and my peers who are much more than those waving their fingers at us.

      From what I have seen world-wide, fascism is preferable to this NWO socialism, complete with their media Gestapo. Meanwhile the Earth continues to change, and we still think we rule this world let alone the solar system it whirls around in – what madness.