Independent Science Takes Another Hit at the EPA: New Science Advisory Board Members Announced

February 1, 2019 | 9:46 am
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The EPA released the names of eight new members of its Science Advisory Board (SAB) yesterday. The verdict? In general Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler is continuing the trend of undermining the independence and quality of scientific advice to the EPA, though he does deserve some credit for reappointing several well-qualified scientists to the SAB and breaking with his predecessor who saw no value in continued expertise.

Wheeler has refused, however, to rescind Pruitt’s nonsensical directive to ban scientists with EPA funding from serving on the board and has appointed individuals whose scientific work is considered outside the mainstream in various scientific disciplines. University researchers are now in the minority on the board, while the number of industry-affiliated members and members listed as consultants has increased (see figure below).

Meet some of the new board members

Take Dr. John Christy. He has a reputation for controversial climate research and denying the evidence of global warming. Christy was also a supporter of Pruitt’s proposed red-team, blue-team debate on the reality of climate change.

Then there’s Dr. Brant Ulsh, a consultant who argues that radiation at low doses isn’t a big deal, contrary to the conclusions of the National Academies of Science.

New member Dr. Richard Williams has received compensation from the American Chemistry Council’s formaldehyde panel, which was set up to obfuscate the health impacts of this carcinogen. He is also on the Board of Trustees of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry-funded organization that is notorious for pushing out shoddy nutrition science.

Dr. Barbara Beck is a consultant with Gradient, which has itself earned a reputation for helping industry defend their products with favorable scientific studies. Beck herself helped write a paper arguing that exposure to lead at low doses is not necessarily harmful to children, which is in stark contrast to the CDC’s assessment that there is no safe level of exposure to lead. In 2017 Beck provided testimony for 3M in a Minnesota case on the toxic chemical PFAS, finding that “the toxicity and drinking water criteria developed by US EPA and MDH could be higher and still be health-protective” and that “there is no reliable evidence” that people in the target area were being harmed by PFAS, even though it was plagued by higher rates of cancer than surrounding areas.

The common thread among these individuals (and those appointed in the last round as well) is that they are practitioners of the widely used “disinformation playbook.” They frequently work to inject uncertainty into the discourse on scientific topics on which most experts agree, by criticizing risk assessments and underlying models, and in practice arguing that exposure to pollutants at low doses is not worth worrying about.

The changing makeup of the EPA Science Advisory Board

As the body that reviews EPA science that informs the agency’s regulations, the SAB is supposed to represent the breadth of expertise of researchers who are regularly publishing in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, a sector which overlaps greatly with the academic community. Since the start of the Trump administration, the number of members from universities has decreased by 43 percent, while the number of industry representatives has tripled and consultants has increased eight times (see above figure).

The decline in SAB members from universities, resulting in part thanks to the EPA’s nonsensical grants directive, means the EPA will be missing out on advice from the most qualified experts on topics applicable to EPA work. Wheeler’s press release boasts that there is now representation from 30 states. But expertise isn’t supposed to be representative of geography. After all, a toxic chemical is no less harmful in Texas than it is in New York. What has been sacrificed is the integrity of the SAB.

Scientists on the SAB should be providing an independent check on the work of the EPA, not using their positions to push fringe scientific views or further a specific policy agenda at the agency. It’s a shame that the independence and quality of the SAB is being so badly decimated at a time when oversight at the EPA is sorely needed to ensure that science is being used to inform policies that should be protecting Americans and our environment. Further, these membership changes are part of a general trend of the Trump administration’s relentless attacks on science and sidelining of science advice, as was most recently displayed by the EPA in disbanding the particulate matter panel of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).

CORRECTION: The originally published version incorrectly described Dr. Richard Williams as a member of the ACC’s formaldehyde panel.