The EPA and Science Advice: A Story of a Time When Congress Listened

April 22, 2013 | 3:38 pm
Michael Halpern
Former Contributor

The UCS Science Network brings thousands of scientists and experts together to leverage their unique knowledge and skills to promote science-based, practical solutions to the challenges we face. Our staff in Washington, such as my colleague Celia Wexler, keep an eye on Congress, and we alert members of the Science Network when legislation is being considered that would strengthen or weaken the role of science in policy making. And while with each passing week (and last week, for me, in particular) it is becoming harder and harder to believe, sometimes members of Congress do pay attention to informed constituents.

A couple of weeks ago, we asked Science Network members to contact members of Congress on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology regarding a misguided piece of legislation that would compromise the scientific integrity of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board (SAB). UCS’s Dr. Francesca Grifo wrote more about the legislation when she testified before the committee in March.

The proposed changes would delay the SAB’s work by years. First, the legislation calls for changes that will greatly weaken conflict of interest standards that are crucial to maintaining objectivity on the board. Second, the bill’s changes would tie the agency up in a number of unnecessary procedural hurdles that would enable special interests, such as companies affected by EPA’s actions, to delay the Board’s recommendations by months, if not years.

In short, the bill would greatly hinder the board’s ability to provide critical scientific advice, thus making it more difficult for the EPA to carry its mission. It’s a great way to help paralyze an agency that one really never cared for too much. Chemical and Engineering News has a good article on this most recent attack on the EPA.

Obviously, Congress is very busy doing (or sadly, more often these days, not doing) many things. It can be difficult to get members of Congress to pay attention to such a wonky topic.

Yet the contacts made by scientists helped focus the attention of several lawmakers. In a hearing to discuss the bill, these legislators not only spoke up against it, but also offered amendments to improve it. Our legislative assistant Yogin Kothari put together a video of some of the highlights from Reps Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Donna Edwards (D-MD), and Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR):

It’s impressive to see how much these members of Congress have learned about the topic, and how dedicated they have become to protecting the integrity and independence of the EPA Science Advisory Board. The hearing, in turn, brought out many of the problems with the proposed legislation, giving more information to the public and the press.

While the bill ultimately passed out of committee on a party line vote, the bill is slightly improved (although we still strongly oppose it). We believe, however, that the attention that UCS supporters helped us bring to the issue helped educate members of Congress and the media about the bill’s substantial flaws.

Thanks to those who took the time out of your day to weigh in.