The Wall Street Journal Gets it Wrong on EPA Scientific Integrity…Again

July 19, 2017 | 10:22 am
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

The Wall Street Journal ran an opinion piece yesterday titled “A Step Toward Scientific Integrity at the EPA” written by long-time critic of the EPA and purveyor of anti-science nonsense, Steven Milloy. His piece commends Administrator Pruitt on his recent dismissals of EPA advisory committee members, and questions the independence of advisory committees, like the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), claiming that they contain biased government grantees and have made recommendations on ozone and particulate matter that aren’t supported by science. His arguments are twisted and unfounded, but are not surprising based upon his history working for industry front groups that attempt to spread disinformation to promote a science agenda benefitting powerful interests.

I want to set the record straight on the independence of EPA’s scientific advisory committees. Here’s what Steven Milloy gets very wrong:

  1. The EPA’s advisory committees have not been stacked with “activists.” In fact, industry representation is on par with representation from non-profit organizations.

I agree with Milloy on just one point: federal advisory committees must be balanced and unbiased. The Federal Advisory Committee Act mandates that all federal advisory committees are “fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented and the functions to be performed.” This is an important piece of the act to ensure that the recommendations flowing from these advisory committees reflect a diversity of viewpoints and a range of expertise. There are also required conflict of interest disclosures made by each and every advisory committee member to ensure that any conflicts will not interfere with their ability to provide independent advice. Milloy claims that “only rarely do members have backgrounds in industry,” which is simply not true. An analysis of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board membership since 1996 reveals that 64 percent of the 459 members were affiliated with an academic institution, 9 percent with industry, 9 percent with non-governmental organizations (including industry-funded organizations like the Chemical Industry Institute of Toxicology), 8 percent with government, and 7 percent with consulting firms.  I found a similar breakdown in an analysis of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors and for all seven of EPA’s scientific advisory committees.

In conversations I’ve had with former EPA Board of Scientific Counselors members, it has been clear that industry scientists have always had a voice on these committees which is why it’s especially suspect that the current administration has decided not to renew the terms of many advisory committee members, hoping to better represent the industry.

  1. Government grants are a major source of funding for academic scientists and these funds are contributing to research projects, not used for private gain.

Milloy’s claim that academic scientists who have received grant money from the EPA are making biased recommendations to the agency is completely unfounded. Receiving EPA funding for unrelated research projects is a fundamentally different thing than serving on a committee to make policy recommendations. EPA awards grants to academic scientists to learn more about scientific topics without a policy agenda and grantees are free to conduct the science and produce results any way they want. There is no predetermined or desired outcome, and the process is completely separate from EPA policy decisions. No incentives exist for committee members to come to a particular policy answer in order to get grant money on an entirely separate scientific research question from a separate office of an agency. To conflate these misunderstands how science and policy work. To Milloy, receiving a grant from government to work on science in the public interest would be biased in the same, if not more severe, way than receiving funds from a corporation to promote a product or otherwise support a private interest. For the work of advisory committee members, ensuring that federal science best supports public protections is key.

Congress’ attempt to correct this supposed problem, which is championed by Milloy in his piece, the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) Reform Act, includes a provision that board members may not have current contracts with the EPA or for three years after service which would only deter academic scientists from pursuing SAB positions. This Act is supported by the likes of Milloy because it would likely provide more opportunities for industry interests, not in need of government funding, to join the SAB.

  1. The advisory committee selection process is and should be based on expertise and experience related to the charge of the committee, not how many times an individual is nominated.

In his piece, Milloy calls the EPA’s advisory committee selection process “opaque” because a certain nominee wasn’t selected after having the most duplicate nominations. But, the EPA’s process for for selecting SAB and CASAC members is actually one of the most open and transparent processes across agencies and advisory committees. Members of the public have the opportunity to submit nominations, view nominees, and comment on the EPA’s roster of appointees before final selections are made. Ultimately, it’s up to the EPA administrator to decide the strongest and most balanced roster of committee members based on the needs of the agency. It’s not meant to be a process whereby any entity can win a nominee based on the number of comments received. Despite receiving 60 out of 83 nomination entries, Michael Honeycutt was likely not chosen to be a CASAC member because he has questionable scientific opinions and documented conflicts of interest. which are completely reasonable justifications.

  1. Particulate matter from power plants and vehicle emission does indeed have demonstrated health impacts, supported by the scientific literature.

Milloy’s article asserts that the claims that particulate matter has negative health impacts is not scientifically justified. This is demonstrably false. Not only is there a wealth of peer-reviewed literature backing up the claim, there is an entire field devoted to studying it. Milloy claims that there was no evidence of these impacts in 1996, but that’s because scientists weren’t collecting that data back then. While Milloy lives in the past, two decades worth of research (over 2,000 studies) since 1996 has shown that fine particulate matter (PM2.5) has been linked to strokes, heart disease, respiratory ailments and premature death.

Wall Street Journal’s second strike on EPA integrity

The Wall Street Journal’s readers deserve better than to read this junk-science drivel without full disclosure about the peddler of the disinformation. In 1993, Phillip Morris funded Milloy to lead an industry front group called the Advancement of Sound Science Coalition that cast doubt on the scientific evidence linking secondhand smoke to disease. In 1998, Milloy found a new benefactor in ExxonMobil, serving on a task force that mapped out ExxonMobil’s strategy to deceive the public about climate science, and funding him for many years to sow doubt under the guise of a slightly renamed front group, the Advancement of Sound Science Center run out of his Maryland home. Milloy’s current employer, the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, formerly the American Tradition Institute, is funded by the fossil fuel industry and has repeatedly filed inappropriate open records requests for the communications of climate scientists working at public universities. His most recent 2016 book is endorsed by none other than long-time junk science purveyor and climate change denier, Senator James M. Inhofe.

This is just a reminder that as we try to make sense of our government’s operations and the state of science for issues that affect our health and our planet’s health, we must consider the sources of our information very carefully. Facts matter, and here at UCS we’ll continue to draw attention to the silencing, sidelining, or distortion of scientific facts.