Why the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act Is Bad for Science

March 8, 2017 | 4:39 pm
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

UPDATE, March 28, 2017: Tomorrow, March 29, the House will begin its consideration of the EPA SAB Reform Act. This bill continues to threaten the integrity of science advice at the EPA and must be stopped in its tracks.

Congress’ perennial bill, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act, has again reared its ugly head. The bill seeks to change the requirements for the EPA’s advisory committee to give industry greater influence while adding extra burdens that make it harder for the committee to meet its charge of providing science advice. It would also have the side effect of dissuading scientists from serving on this advisory committee because of future restrictions to obtaining EPA funding.

This is one of several attempts by Congress to meddle with and ultimately undermine the process of science informing policy decisions, including the Honest and Open New EPA Science Treatment Act (HONEST Act, formerly known as the Secret Science Reform Act). What these bills have in common is the public-facing message of increased transparency and public access, while the underlying goal is actually to give industry greater influence over the scientific process and burden science agencies with excessive requirements. These measures are attacks on public health, safety and environmental safeguards, plain and simple.

The independence of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) and its ability to continue its work with the caliber of experts it currently employs would be seriously jeopardized by this proposal. The SAB was established in 1978 to provide independent scientific advice to the EPA’s administrator. It currently advises the agency on complex scientific issues ranging in scope from agricultural science to chemical assessments, ecological assessments, environmental justice, drinking water, and radiation. Most recently, the EPA SAB was instrumental in ensuring that the EPA made clear and evidence-based conclusions that accurately represented its findings on the systemic impacts of fracking on drinking water resources.  This bill’s language makes it sounds like the integrity of the SAB has been compromised in some way, when really, the passage of this bill would do just that.

Here are some of the major red flags with this bill:

It discourages academic experts from SAB participation

The bill contains hurdles for academic experts to meaningfully participate in the SAB by banning experts’ participation in “advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review and evaluation of their own work.” This language presumes that corporate experts with direct financial interests are not conflicted while academics who have experience working on these issues are. The bill does appear to permit SAB experts with published, peer-reviewed research, to address those topics on which they have credentials, provided that their expertise is publicly disclosed. But the language in the bill is so vague that it raises many questions. This is likely a way to make scientific experts think twice before joining the SAB since it could lead to legal issues if some of their scientific views are not peer reviewed or published, for example. This is the opposite of how the SAB should work. Scientific advisory committees work best when their members have expertise in the area they are advising on. While this may be obvious to most people, this does not appear to be obvious to Chairman Lamar Smith and his colleagues.

Not only that, but the bill includes a provision that board members may not have current contracts with the EPA or “shall not apply for a grant or contract for 3 years following the end of that member’s service on the Board.” Such a provision is nonsensical. 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 is a completely separate process from EPA policy decisions. Conflating science advisory board decisions with EPA grants completely misunderstands how scientific grants work.

This is simply a way to deter academic scientists from pursuing a slot on the SAB, opening up opportunities for industry interests who would never be in need of government funding to join the Board.

It encourages more industry presence on the SAB

While industry representatives are permitted to serve on advisory committees under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), they must disclose their conflict of interest. This bill emphasizes specifically that experts with financial ties to corporations affected by SAB assessments are “not excluded.” While the SAB’s ethics rules do not allow this exclusion anyway, the language implies that industry representatives who have a financial stake in some of the EPA’s policy decisions would effectively be considered in the same ranks as academic scientists who have never stood to profit from an EPA decision. This false equivalency cannot stand.

This sentiment that more industry representatives should be on advisory committees was perpetuated at a February 7 Lamar Smith-chaired Committee on Science, Space, and Technology hearing: “Making EPA Great Again.” During the hearing, several committee members accused the SAB of being an “echo chamber,” “stacked” with scientists who are supportive of the EPA’s views and could be remedied by including more members from industry for “balance.” To this asinine accusation that advisory committees should contain more “devil’s advocates,” The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Chief Executive Officer Rush Holt responded, “That is a science advisory board—it will not function better by having fewer scientists on it. It is supposed to look at science. But in the name of balance and diversity, there’s an effort to make it, well… less scientific.” Holt is right. Including conflicted individuals in the name of “balance” would threaten the SAB’s ability to conduct truly independent scientific reviews.

It draws out the science advice process

Public comment is already built into the federal advisory committee process under FACA. This bill would expand public access to an almost debilitating level. This would especially benefit industry, which tends to have greater resources with which to follow rulemaking, appear at public meetings, and write public comments. For example, one provision in the bill would require that, “if multiple repetitious comments are received, only one shall be published” and therefore count toward the administrative record. This hits directly at members of the public who sign their name to a form comment initiated by organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists. If the thousands of form comments submitted on a certain issue are only considered as one, the voices of all of those individuals would be effectively silenced. A move like this would further stack the deck in favor of those who have money, time, and connections to submit several unique comments to have an uneven influence on the public comment process, diminishing the voice of communities most often bearing the brunt of environmental or health impacts that the SAB is charged with analyzing.

According to the bill, for each major advisory activity, the Board must convene a public information-gathering session “to discuss the state of the science” related to that activity. Just imagine the type of loop that could be triggered as the Board examines “the state of the science” on climate change or the harmful effects of a certain toxin as it prepares to meet to address some aspect of climate health or air pollution.

In addition, both the EPA, before it asks for the Board’s advice, and the Board itself would be required to “accept, consider, and address” public comments on the agency’s questions to the Board. By addressing each and every comment it receives, the SAB would have less time to actually provide scientific advice to the EPA administrator. All SAB meetings are already open to the public and transcripts made available, in accordance with FACA. The provisions contained in this legislation open up the process more than necessary, turning each scientific evaluation into a public hearing, and adding cumbersome responsibilities to the SAB’s already full plate.

As my Center for Science and Democracy colleagues wrote in Science two years ago about a previous iteration of this bill: “these changes give political and legal operatives greater influence over the advisory board while marginalizing independent scientists, as well as greater opportunity for frivolous and resource-consuming challenges to the board’s findings.” This and other attacks on the scientific process will not just impact potential SAB members but could change the way that science informs policy at the EPA for the worse. We will be working to stop this bill in its tracks in order to preserve the integrity of science advice in government and ensure that EPA has the best information to make critical decisions that protect our health and our environment.

Join us by calling or writing your members of Congress today to tell them to oppose this harmful and unnecessary legislation.