Career staffers at EPA expressed alarm after former Administrator Scott Pruitt signaled plans to alter the makeup of the agency’s scientific advisory boards, newly released emails show.
The staffers worried the move would further politicize the boards, which are supposed to offer impartial scientific advice, according to the emails obtained by the Government Accountability Project through the Freedom of Information Act.
In February 2017, Pruitt indicated he wanted to take a fresh look at the boards, which are tasked with providing advice on air quality, pesticides, drinking water safety, hazardous waste and more.
In particular, the former administrator said he wanted to examine whether board members who received agency grants brought a certain bias to the panels.
On Feb. 16, 2017, a top official in EPA’s Office of Research and Development reacted with alarm to a Bloomberg story titled, "Pruitt could alter air science advisory panel direction at EPA."
"These committees … [are] becoming increasingly the focus of political agendas, which adds to the difficulty of demonstrating science in an objective way," wrote Andy Miller, associate director for climate at EPA.
Miller added, "The politicization is not likely to decrease and there will always be someone who is going to be unhappy and claims bias."
Alan Vette, deputy director for air, climate and energy research at EPA, questioned why Pruitt was focusing on board members who receive grants from the agency, rather than industry.
"I’d imagine many [Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee] & [Science Advisory Board] members have received industry funding for their research as well as funding from EPA & other govt agencies," Vette wrote. "We know how deep EPA’s pockets are and they aren’t that deep."
Vette continued, "On principle alone Pruitt has an argument. But it’s weak overall and there’s a very strong underlying agenda to it."
He added in a later message, "As we’ve seen just about every level of appointment and deliberation is becoming much more political in nature."
Rosemary Keane, a former research communications associate at EPA, suggested that the agency’s communications office clear up any confusion about Pruitt’s remarks.
"We need to define our space before we have it defined for us," Keane wrote. "That’s where the Communications Office could come in, ideally. It would be interesting to see how the SAB Staff Office has (or has not) publicly responded to these kinds of allegations of people being appointed and biased because of funding."
Pruitt ended up issuing a sweeping directive in October 2017 that prohibited scientists who receive EPA grants from serving on the agency’s nearly two dozen federal advisory committees (E&E News PM, Oct. 31, 2017).
The former administrator framed the directive as a step to ensure the panels’ objectivity. But the move rattled many in the scientific community, who noted that EPA already had clear conflict-of-interest laws in place for the advisers (Greenwire, Oct. 18, 2017).
While EPA has since enforced the directive unevenly, the ban has forced some committee members to give up their seats rather than surrender their agency funding. The policy is also the target of three pending lawsuits brought by advocacy groups and researchers. EPA documents released in one of those challenges show that the agency cribbed heavily from Republican members of Congress in developing the new membership standards (Greenwire, May 24).
Chris Zarba, who headed the Science Advisory Board staff office last year, has since retired. In a June court filing on behalf of the plaintiffs in one of the suits, Zarba warned that Pruitt’s policy had "seriously damaged" EPA’s ability to attract qualified scientists (Greenwire, Sept. 21). Acting EPA chief Andrew Wheeler, who took over after Pruitt resigned in July, has so far left it in place.
In defending the ban on service by grant recipients, EPA attorneys have argued that the agency’s administrator has virtually unfettered authority to make advisory panel appointments and that the lawsuits should accordingly be dismissed. On Tuesday, however, plaintiffs in one suit countered that the Supreme Court’s decision last week in an Endangered Species Act case "reaffirmed the strong presumption in favor of judicial review of agency action."
In that unanimous opinion, the high court handed private landowners a win, in part because the justices found that a Fish and Wildlife Service economic analysis was subject to judicial review (Greenwire, Dec. 3).
In Tuesday’s filing, lawyers for Physicians for Social Responsibility and other advocacy groups said the court’s decision showed that judicial review "is also available of whether EPA arbitrarily and capriciously exercised any discretion that remains to it under federal ethics law."