Science Advice in Action: Highlights from an EPA Science Advisory Board Meeting

September 5, 2017 | 3:11 pm
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

Here at the Center for Science and Democracy, we have been writing a lot lately about the importance of federal science advice and defending the value of advisory committees like the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors and EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) against threats of budget cuts and reform. When I saw that the full SAB would be meeting at the end of August, I jumped at the opportunity to attend so that I could share some highlights of the proceedings and go beyond the static information that meeting transcripts convey.

As the EPA administrator’s primary science advisors, the purpose of this SAB meeting was for the group to meet in person to discuss some ongoing work. This included a review of a draft SAB report on economy-wide modeling of the benefits and costs of environmental regulation; a review of a draft SAB report on the framework for assessing biogenic carbon dioxide emissions from stationary sources; and a review of a draft review of EPA’s draft risk assessment on a munitions chemical, Hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine, known as RDX. That’s a lot of reviews! The SAB also heard a briefing from the EPA’s Center for Environmental Assessment and the Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) on how they are operationalizing systematic review to increase transparency, efficiency, and access to risk assessment products.

The 47 members, both in the room and on the phone, were ready to dive into conversations that for many of them, were slightly outside of their bailiwicks. Expertise in the room ranged from agricultural economists to pulmonary toxicologists to civil and environmental engineers, taking on issues running the gamut from the viability and longevity of economy-wide modeling and what research questions would help to improve EPA’s ability to predict the economic benefits of its regulation, to the importance of training EPA staff to conduct better and more standardized risk assessments without adding years onto their workloads.

Transparency and accessibility at the forefront

A strong commitment to transparency was a theme throughout the meeting. The first matter of business was to announce that a couple of members would be recusing themselves because of a potential conflict of interest. One of these members is affiliated with ExxonMobil and therefore removed himself from the discussion about biogenic carbon dioxide emissions, since Exxon is likely to be financially impacted by policy decisions on the matter. With clear disclosure of and checks on financial conflicts of interest, and a balanced composition, federal advisory committees like the SAB are able to operate harmoniously with members with a range of affiliations, including industry, the nonprofit sector, state government, and academia.

Accessibility is also a major consideration for the SAB, and they seem genuinely interested in making their reports easier for their general readership to digest and improving the transparency of their processes. The SAB not only was interested in the way that their own reports were used by the public, but their commitment to accessibility was clear in their recommendations to the agency as well.

As a member of the public, there was no registration required, but there was a sign-in sheet before entering the conference room and plenty of room to sit and watch the meeting of great science minds. There was even coffee made available for all! Public attendees came and went as the day wore on, but at most times there were about 20 people in the room, most of whom were interested EPA staffers eager to hear advice from these trusted counselors.

The meeting began promptly in the morning and ran through the packed agenda smoothly, thanks to the Designated Federal Officer’s leadership—he’s the EPA staff person who is responsible for ensuring that the committee is operating according to the Federal Advisory Committee Act—and the SAB chair, who leads the committee through the agenda and facilitates the meeting.

Discussions on the different agenda items were organized and thoughtful, and there was opportunity for public comment on each piece so that interested parties could give the SAB their feedback. Several members of the public had comments on the biogenic emissions report, including some critiques of the short timeline given to the public to review the document. The opportunity for the SAB to hear from members of the public and refer to their testimony throughout the proceedings is incredibly valuable and a testament to the importance of these public meetings on a regular basis to keep the advisors grounded.

A few major takeaways

The day-and-a-half meeting was chock-full of acronyms (both for agency offices and for indecipherable chemical names) and highly technical scientific jargon, and admittedly not the easiest for a member of the public to access fully without a 2-month primer on the ins and outs of biogenic emissions. However, attending this meeting allowed me to fully understand what it means to have a group of the country’s premier scientists in one room discussing scientific issues. It’s an all-star team of brilliant minds. At the end of the day, the EPA administrator could feel the utmost confidence that questions posed to this group have been carefully considered and conclusions come to with pointed discourse.

These scientists certainly do not always agree, but they talk about their disagreements and call each other out if they feel that a characterization is incorrect or off the mark in some way. They try to look at each charge question from all sides and from all disciplines, so nothing is left out of the equation. They respect one another as colleagues and as friends. At the end of the last day, there was a touching toast to celebrate the SAB chair, whose term will be coming to an end in September.

Appointments to the SAB and other federal advisory committees are taken seriously by those afforded the opportunity, and it’s no wonder. What better way for scientists to challenge themselves in a new setting by applying their expertise to support federal policy?

What is frustrating, however, is that Administrator Pruitt has so far not been involved with the SAB besides sending them a spring 2017 regulatory agenda, which includes EPA regulatory and deregulatory actions, for the SAB to review. The SAB plans to share some of their priorities with Pruitt and invite him to the next full board meeting. Seeing as Pruitt has already been a party to several incidents of sidelining science, including his plan for a “red team/blue team” exercise on climate change, he could clearly benefit from some science advice that doesn’t come directly from special interest talking points.

After hearing from the EPA’s IRIS division director and learning about how quickly staff has been implementing National Academies of Science recommendations to strengthen its review process, there was a motion from SAB members to inform Pruitt of the value of IRIS. This is especially timely given that this week, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, led by longtime IRIS critic Representative Lamar Smith, will hold a hearing to review the “integrity” of the division.

I would hope that those who have been critical of the SAB would attend a meeting so that the notion that these scientists are “conflicted” is laid to rest. Conflicts of interest are taken care of at the outset of the meeting, and the rest of the conversation has nothing to do with employer or political party or who’s occupying the White House. The only thing that matters to these individuals is being scientifically accurate and helping the agency to meet its mission. So next time you hear something or read something that categorizes SAB members as having agendas or lacking scientific integrity, try to remember that this job is actually just about the science. Let’s keep it that way.