Scott Pruitt is administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Trump’s EPA has blocked agency grantees from serving on science advisory panels. Here is what it means

Scientists receiving grants from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., many of them leading university researchers, are being purged from the agency’s advisory boards. The move, announced today by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, bars scientists from serving on these boards if they are now receiving money through an agency grant. It marks a major change in who can serve on the committees, which help steer EPA research and regulations by providing input on scientific questions.

Pruitt’s move comes after he signaled earlier this month that he would take this step, and acted earlier this year to end the service of numerous researchers on several EPA advisory bodies. (Read more here and here.)

ScienceInsider breaks down today’s announcement, why it matters, and how people are reacting.

What exactly did Pruitt do?

Pruitt announced a new policy, effective immediately, restricting who is eligible to serve on agency advisory panels. It bans scientists from sitting on the committees while they are receiving EPA grant funding. Pruitt said the new policy was designed to prevent a conflict of interest. “When we have members of those committees that received tens of millions of dollars in grants at the same time that they are advising this agency on rulemaking, that is not good,” Pruitt said.

He has not raised similar concerns about potential conflicts of interest for scientists who work for regulated industries or state and local governments subject to EPA regulation. A majority of the scientists on the EPA committees have traditionally hailed from academia, with a handful from private industry, environmental groups, and state and local governments.

What do the committees do?

Pruitt’s actions today specifically addressed three major committees:

  • The Scientific Advisory Board, a panel of approximately 45 scientists, examines key scientific issues related to EPA regulations, and produces reports telling EPA what the current state of the science is. In recent years, that has included review of agency assessments of toxic chemicals, fracking’s effects on drinking water, and the use of models to measure the costs and benefits of air pollution regulations.
  • The Board of Scientific Counselors, with an executive committee of about 20 people, works more intimately with agency scientists, advising the agency’s Office of Research and Development on its research programs.
  • The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee provides technical guidance specifically related to air pollution standards, such as questions about the potential health effects of different pollution levels. 

Why does this matter?

Regulated industries have been pushing for years to boost their presence on these advisory boards. The U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year passed a Republican-backed bill that mirrors much of what Pruitt did today. One of its main sponsors was Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), chairperson of the House science committee and a frequent critic of the science behind environmental regulations, particularly climate change. That bill won the support of industry-backed groups including the American Chemistry Council in Washington, D.C. But similar measures have failed to gain traction in the Senate, and have never become law. So, in essence, Pruitt took administrative action to accomplish what Republicans in Congress could not.

Smith appeared with Pruitt today and praised the new policy, saying it will enable “honest government, sound scientific opinions, and a more responsive EPA.”

Environmental groups, meanwhile, have warned that restricting grant-funded researchers will weaken the scientific rigor of the panels and tilt the balance toward people representing the groups that have a financial stake in less-restrictive regulations.

Who’s being kicked off the panels?

EPA didn’t provide a list of current board members who are disqualified. But people recently dismissed from the main advisory board before completing their terms include scientists from the University of Washington in Seattle; Harvard University; Stanford University in Palo Alto, California; the University of Southern California in Los Angeles; and Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts.

How many people might the new rule affect?

The agency is one of the primary sources of environmental science funding in the country. Much of that research is done by the agency itself, through the Office of Research and Development. It also gives external grants, including approximately $50 million a year through its Science to Achieve Results program. The new policy would ban current recipients of those grants, many of them university researchers. In 2016, the agency listed grants with 36 principal investigators to scientists at eight universities. In his remarks today, Pruitt said committee members included people receiving a total of about $77 million in EPA funding over the past 3 years.

Who will be on the panels instead?

Though the agency didn’t release a full list today, Pruitt introduced the new heads of the three main committees.

  • Michael Honeycutt, lead toxicologist for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in Austin, takes over as chairperson of the Science Advisory Board. Honeycutt has challenged EPA moves to tighten standards for ozone pollution. He replaces Peter Thorne, head of the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health in Iowa City.
  • The new head of the scientific counselors panel is Paul Gilman, an executive at Covanta, a New Jersey company that handles waste, including incinerating waste to produce energy. He worked at EPA during former President George W. Bush’s administration as the agency’s science adviser.  It was previously led by Deborah Swackhamer, a professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis who studies toxic chemicals in the environment.
  • On the clean air committee, it’s Tony Cox, expert in risk analysis whose private consulting firm in Colorado lists industry clients in the oil and chemical industries.He replaces Ana Diez Roux, an epidemiologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

How are people reacting to the news?

  • “Allowing scientists funded by the very industries the agency is tasked with regulating to participate on independent science review panels, while prohibiting leading scientists simply because they have received funding through EPA grants, is the height of hypocrisy.” —Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D–TX), ranking minority member on the House science committee
  • "The changes announced today will help ensure EPA’s scientific review panels are well balanced with perspectives from qualified scientists of diverse backgrounds and board members are free of any disqualifying conflicts of interest." —American Chemistry Council, Washington, D.C.
  • “Pruitt’s actions today are the height of hypocrisy. He is trying to gaslight Americans into believing that industry-funded scientists can offer EPA impartial advice, while those with EPA research grants are biased." —Steven Hamburg, chief scientist of Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., and a former EPA Science Advisory Board member
  • "I think this has a potential consequence of removing the best and the brightest from the deliberations on the nation’s most pressing environmental science and public health issues." —Tom Burke, epidemiologist at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland, and former EPA science adviser and past member of EPA Science Advisory Board
  • "The move to remove scientists with EPA funding is, simply put, scientific censorship. He [Pruitt] is applying this directive in the name of ethics, when in fact he is only applying it to independent academic scientists and not to industry, who may in fact have a much greater conflict of interest. Current EPA ethics practices do not allow a scientist to comment or advise on a subject they are funded on, so he this directive is totally unnecessary and clearly political, not ethical. By doing this, he is ensuring a board that will back up his very selective use of science that is used to support his policies—he does not want and is eliminating independent science advice.” – Deborah Swackhamer, former chair of EPA Science Advisory Board and chair of the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors until replaced by new Pruitt appointee. Professor at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and expert in toxic chemical exposure

Correction, 11/7/2017, 9:00 a.m.: The article incorrectly named the new and former chairs of the clean air advisory committee and the counselors board. The names have been corrected.