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.