This Thursday and Friday, the EPA’s independent advisory body, the Science Advisory Board (SAB), will be meeting in person for the first time since Administrator Scott Pruitt announced his sweeping advisory committee directive last fall. I, for one, am thrilled that the EPA’s scientific sounding board is active and meeting in person at a time when the agency can use all the scientific counsel they can get. However, it is important to understand that since Administrator Pruitt has joined the agency, the context for science advice at the EPA has greatly changed.
Several important things have happened since the last time the SAB met:
- Administrator Pruitt’s directive banning EPA-grant-funded scientists from serving on the agency’s advisory committee meant that six committee members were dismissed for that reason, six others were not renewed for a second term (which had been common practice), and the 18 new members joining the SAB include individuals who have questioned mainstream science, are funded by industry, or have actively opposed the very mission of the EPA.
- Former chair Peter Thorne’s term ended, and he has been replaced by Michael Honeycutt, the head toxicologist of the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality, who has actively sought out weaker standards for a variety of environmental contaminants in his state and has even claimed that air pollution can make you live longer.
- Administrator Pruitt has not answered the SAB’s September letter asking him to join the SAB during a meeting.
- The EPA issued a proposed rule in April, “Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science,” that would effectively restrict the agency’s ability to use the best available science as it designs critical environmental and health protections. This will not only affect the science used to support EPA’s safeguards, but will limit the way in which the SAB will be able to review the scientific basis of those rules.
Typically these in-person meetings provide the committee members a time to discuss ongoing projects, charges from the administrator, or additional issues they might want to raise as the agency’s peer-review mechanism. The agenda for this meeting includes time to discuss the recommendations of a workgroup that was tasked with looking at the Spring and Fall 2017 regulatory agendas and figuring out what EPA regulatory actions merit review from the SAB on their scientific or technical merits. It turns out that since the agency has attempted to roll back several agency policies that would require scientific grounding (including the Clean Power Plan and the Glider Vehicle Rule), the SAB wants to weigh in. During the meeting, the full committee will have a chance to figure out what to cover and how they will do this.
It is imperative that the SAB strongly urge the administrator not to move forward with its restricted science proposal nor its deregulatory measures until the SAB has had ample time to review the actions and the science supporting them and provide objective advice on next steps. I will be asking this of the committee during my comment tomorrow. You can read my full written statement here.
The SAB is an invaluable advisory body that should be actively working to ensure that EPA’s science is unassailable. And thanks to the transparency measures of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, the public will be able to hold the SAB to its charge and its conflict-of-interest policies to guarantee that its science advice is pure and untainted by political or ideological motivations, so that the EPA has the best available scientific information as a baseline for its decisions. Pruitt isn’t legally obligated to follow every piece of SAB advice, but we’ll know when he fails to—and you can bet that we’ll be demanding justification when his actions are in direct opposition to his agency’s mission of protecting the environment and public health.