Trump Ban on EPA-Funded Scientists Serving on Agency Advisory Boards Endangers Public Health

Posted Nov. 8, 2017

MP3 Interview with Gretchen Goldman, research director with The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, conducted by Scott Harris

epa

In another in a long list of controversial edicts issued by the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Scott Pruitt, new rules were announced on Oct. 31, which bars scientists and others who receive EPA grant funding from serving on the agency’s science advisory boards. The action will purge a large number of scientists who are well-known authorities in the fields of ecology, human biology, toxicology and epidemiology. Pruitt was quoted as saying the new policy was designed to prevent a conflict of interest.

However, the EPA administrator, who is widely expected to appoint representatives of industries that the EPA regulates to sit on science advisory panels, has not issued any new policies to prevent commonplace conflicts of interests related to regulatory law which often cut into corporate profits.

Environmentalists, congressional Democrats and scientific organizations have condemned Pruitt’s purge, asserting that the ban prevents the nation’s top scientific experts from advising the EPA, while strengthening the influence of industry representatives with clear ethical challenges. Lawsuits are likely. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Gretchen Goldman, research director with The Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Here, she explains why her group believes Scott Pruitt’s directive undermines independent science and puts Americans at risk.

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: Advisory committees are bodies of external scientists – scientists from outside the government. A lot of them come from academia and other places where they're doing scientific work and they volunteer that expertise and their time to help inform the U.S. government on a variety of issues. And this happens across federal agencies; at the EPA, sciences advisers provide advice on everything from air pollution, to water quality to chemical safety hazards. And so these advisory committees play very crucial roles in getting external science advice to the agency and it gives them that extra power and it allows the public to see if the agency is making science-based decisions because we have this independent body that can, you know, help call them on anything that isn't scientific and really hold them to account.

And so these advisory committees really operate separately and that's worked very, very, well for many years. And what we're seeing is that (EPA) Administrator (Scott) Pruitt is starting to try to dismantle that process. And so, by banning scientists that receive grants from the EPA to do scientific research and further science in a particular field is really excluding scientists that your the best experts from being able to advise the agency. It's very, very strange. The best analogy that I come up with is it's like saying a teacher who last year received a teaching award doesn't get to serve on the PTA. I don't know why you would not want to give your best minds a seat at the table, but that's exactly what Administrator Pruitt is doing.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Could you be able to address for our audience the claim that's out there somewhere among the Trump appointees at the EPA, including Scott Pruitt that there's the specter of conflict of interest for these scientists who receive EPA grants to fund their research.

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: Yeah, it's really turning the idea of conflict of interest on its head. You know, a typical EPA grant would go to furthering scientific understanding on a certain topic. So, I'm an air pollution scientist, so something that I might apply to get a grant for would be studying multi-pollutant interactions and their health effects. And then, if I were to also serve on a committee, I might get asked something like whether or not the EPA was going in the right direction when it came to water quality testing. And so, you know if I had this grant on air pollution how does that even tell me how I'm supposed to provide advice on water quality, right? They're totally different realms. It's really apples and oranges here. Even if you wanted to try to come up with an answer on an advisory committee that you felt like the EPA wanted, it's not even clear what that would be, you know. So they've sort of created this argument and then decided that independent scientists, particularly those from academic institutions, that they would be conflicted.

But meanwhile, they've added to the committee many people from industries, so people with strong ties to industries that are affected by EPA regulations, and those people are unrestricted in that they're able to serve despite those very clear conflicts of interest. So they've really flipped this idea around and turned it on its head.

BETWEEN THE LINES: This is not an academic exercise here. What goes on at the EPA actually affects people's lives. What the EPA does or doesn't do can actually save lives or condemn people to lives of diseases which could have been prevented. From your perspective as a scientist yourself, what's at stake here in terms of lives? The lives of Americans out there?

GRETCHEN GOLDMAN: That's right, there's a lot at stake. The EPA, people often think of it as being an environmentally-focused agency, but its mission is actually about public health, too. And a lot of what the agency does now is protect people issues and the more that we defund the agency or remove scientists from the process or limit the resources that they have, the less they're going to be able to protect us from all of these hazards. And so, it's everything from air pollution that we talked about. It's also water quality and making sure that they're in charge of maintaining the Safe Drinking Water Act and implementing that.

It's also chemical hazards, which is a whole other area of concern now, since many of the Trump administration appointees at the EPA on the chemical safety side have actually come directly from the chemical manufacturing industry. Air pollution doesn't care if you're a Democrat or a Republican or in what state you live. You know it's going to affect us all.

And so I think we need to be diligent in making sure that we can minimize what happens there and keep people protected.

Learn more about opposition to the banning of EPA-funded scientists from serving on the agency's advisory boards, by visiting Union of Concerned Scientists at ucsusa.org.

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