Since 1978, the Environmental Protection Agency has called upon the expertise of independent leading scientists and researchers from around the country to provide advice and expertise when making regulatory decisions. Once appointed, the experts sit on the Science Advisor Board (SAB), which is segmented into a number of different committees based around topics the agency oversees, like air quality, radiation, and drinking water.
The process, enacted as part of the Environmental Research, Development and Demonstration Authorization Act, makes sense. Many of the most qualified people that can help guide decisions to preserve the environment and keep people healthy don’t actually work at the EPA. They come from universities, mainly. And in order to fund some of their research (which often is then cited when they sit on the SAB) they receive grants from the EPA.
It forms a symbiotic chain designed to help us not destroy the planet: The EPA funds the researchers, the researchers advise the EPA, and the EPA creates regulations based on their knowledge.
That’s about to end. The EPA’s head and President Trump-appointee Scott Pruitt announced yesterday that scientists who have received funding from the EPA cannot serve on an advisory board.
“Given the critical role these committees play it is in the public interest to select the most qualified, knowledgeable, and experienced candidates,” Pruitt wrote in a statement announcing the new directive. The Washington Post reports that the move is “unprecedented.”
Pruitt’s justification is one long lauded by the GOP—that scientists who have received money from the EPA cannot be impartial when they advise the agency to implement regulations.
But, according to the Post, the agency already has and extensive process in place to prevent conflicts of interest. Critics of the new policy, according to the Post, say that it designed to fill the SAB with proponents of deregulation.
Some of Pruitt’s new appointees have close ties to coal and oil—two of the industries most impacted by EPA regulations. According to the New Republic, one of the appointees, Robert Phalen, has argued in the past that the air is too clean. In a 2012 interview with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, he implied that irritants are good for children, “to learn how to ward them off,” the article says.
The new appointed head of the SAB, Michael Honeycutt, has been quoted as saying concerns about the Ozone are overblown because, “most people are indoors for 90 percent of the time.”
Three other appointees come from large fossil-fuel companies, the New Republic reports.
The head of the AAAS, the same organization that interviewed Phalen about air quality in 2012, harshly criticized the new policy in a statement on the website. This EPA decision is motivated by politics, not the desire for quality scientific information,” he wrote. “Federal agencies should recognize and enable input of scientific and technical information that represents the best available evidence.”