Court Hears Challenge to EPA Science Advice Ban

December 3, 2019 | 10:53 am
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

UCS’s lawsuit challenging the EPA’s policy banning anyone who has received agency funding from sitting on advisory committees got a hearing today in the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Massachusetts.

UCS and co-plaintiff Dr. Elizabeth A. (Lianne) Sheppard, a professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health,  are represented by law firm Jenner & Block and legal nonprofit Protect Democracy. In the months since the lawsuit was filed, the EPA has further politicized its science advice processes, completely eliminating some advisory panels and stacking existing committees and boards with industry representatives.

In late 2017, disgraced former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt banned scientists who receive EPA grants from serving on advisory committees. That’s right: the scientists who are doing the most promising and relevant environmental research should not give advice to the agency. The announcement was met with disgust from scientists.

No scientific organization or credible ethicist would say that an EPA grant-funded scientist has a conflict of interest in providing the best available scientific advice to the EPA, in no small part because the EPA does not have a financial stake in the outcome of the research.

Notably, despite its claim of conflict, EPA has appointed to its committees scientists who are well outside the mainstream and more likely to give the agency the advice it wants. EPA has also argued that its policy promotes “geographic diversity”–something that makes no difference in scientific assessments. (You do not become a more or less capable scientist when you move from Oklahoma to Minnesota.)

This is consistent with the tobacco industry ethos with which this EPA operates: if you can’t win on the science, compromise the process. And in fact, it appears that the main target of this and other recent policy changes is the EPA’s air pollution rules: the proposal to restrict the types of science that can be used in policymaking, the science advice ban, and the sidelining of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) are all designed to sabotage the implementation of the Clean Air Act, which requires the agency to set air pollution standards solely based on the best available science. One investigation found inconsistencies in the EPA’s enforcement of the ban, with scientists purged from the SAB and Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC) but not from other advisory bodies.

This is About Politics, Not Science

Let’s be clear: the move to ban grant-funded scientists from providing advice to the government is a political decision, not a scientific one. Documents released as part of a similar lawsuit demonstrated that the EPA consulted Republican lawmakers and industry groups in putting together the new standards, while leaving scientific organizations in the dark.

Incredibly, after the directive was implemented, the General Accountability Office found that EPA “did not consistently ensure that members . . . met federal ethics requirements” when appointing new members to the SAB and CASAC. So much for eliminating bias.

The GAO also found that EPA did not consider staff recommendations about the most qualified nominees, which is called for in agency guidelines. CASAC is now led by a man who allows industry groups to edit his research papers.

Last year, the EPA completely disbanded a panel on particulate matter pollution. University of Washington Professor Lianne Sheppard, also a party to the lawsuit, was a member of that panel.  After the panel was disbanded, even a compromised CASAC said it lacked the expertise to evaluate whether current particulate matter standards are protective of public health. This set off a series of twisted and bizarre actions to further misrepresent and sideline air pollution science and scientists from the process of setting adequate air pollution standards.

In protest and in recognition of the importance of its critical role—however sidelined—the panel convened outside of the agency, with logistical assistance from UCS, and recommended that particulate matter pollution protections be strengthened. But, the compromised Clean Air Science Advisory Committee could not come to a consensus around whether it would accept the panel’s recommendations.

The agency faces similar lawsuits filed by Earthjustice and NRDC. The EPA has cut other advisory committees, consistent with the President’s arbitrary executive order to reduce the number of federal advisory committees by one third.