Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has made no secret of his preference for industry over environmentalists.
But during a speech at the Heritage Foundation this week, Pruitt hinted at a philosophy that is deeply distrusting not only of environmental advocates, but also of the way environmental research is conducted and how his agency uses science.
Pruitt announced he plans to ban scientists whose work has been funded by EPA grants from advising the agency, and he questioned the scientists’ independence.
“There are dozens and dozens of these folks. Over the years these individuals, as they’ve served in those [advisory] capacities, guess what’s also happened? They’ve received monies through grants, and often substantial monies through grants,” Pruitt said. “That, to me, causes question on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way.”
On the surface of it, receiving “substantial monies” is certainly a phrase that will pique the curiosity of anyone interested in tracking down biased research. Similar to looking at campaign donors to understand a politician’s positions, looking at grant funders can help understand the purpose behind a research project.
“Before you read another health study, check who’s funding the research,” says one 2016 headline Guardian headline. A few years earlier, Scientific American ran a piece titled, “How Pharma-Funded Research Cherry-Picks Positive Results,” an excerpt from Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients.
“Before we get going, we need to establish one thing beyond any doubt: industry-funded trials are more likely to produce a positive, flattering result than independently funded trials,” author Ben Goldacre wrote. According to his research, industry-funded studies tend to get the results industry wants to see. (NB: The use of the word “tend.” This phenomenon is not consistent across all research funded by industry, but it is still a factor to consider.)
Pruitt’s argument now seems to be that the federal government — and his agency itself — has an agenda that is equivalent to industry’s agenda. That is, scientists working with EPA money are incentivized to find, or at least document, the results EPA wants. But what are the results the EPA wants?
According to the agency’s website, “The mission of EPA is to protect human health and the environment.” In other words, activities, including research, funded by the EPA are done to advance the agency’s understanding of how to best protect human health and the environment — whether that is by finding a safe level of toxicity or by identifying environmental hazards.
Again, from the agency’s website:
Every year, EPA awards over $4 billion in funding for grants and other assistance agreements. From small non-profit organizations to large state governments, EPA works to help many visionary organizations achieve their environmental goals. With countless success stories over the years, EPA grants remain a chief tool in the advancement of human health and the environment.
Last year, for instance, EPA grants went to determining if there is a human health impact associated with algal blooms; better understanding water supply systems, water quality, and associated health risks; investigating “drinking water vulnerability and neonatal health outcomes in relation to oil and gas production in the Appalachian Basin”; and developing better ways to get nutrients from wastewater. The first three listed here are university research projects, the fourth is a small business grant.
None of the researchers — experts in their field — will be allowed to advise the EPA in the coming years, under Pruitt’s proposed order.
The federal government routinely funds some of the best scientists and best science in the country. For instance, at Boston University in 2014, some 80 percent of grant funding was through the government.
But those numbers are falling. According to National Science Foundation data published in Science, 2015 was the first year since World War II that the federal government funded less than half of the country’s research. Part of that is because government funding has flattened (it is expected to decline under President Trump), but part of it is because corporate research has increased. “The U.S. pharmaceutical industry is the major driver behind the recent jump in corporate basic research,” the article reports.
The problem with that system is that when industry picks the research projects, it picks projects designed to make money. There isn’t a lot of money to be made figuring out whether it’s dangerous to human health to swim in algae-laden water. (In fact, only one of the EPA grants listed above sounds even slightly able to be monetized.) Furthermore, these scientists aren’t getting rich on grants. Even a half-million-dollar grant is not much, once it is divided between multiple researchers and used for salaries as well as lab equipment, space, and supplies, over two years.
But that’s exactly why federal support for research is so important. U.S. taxpayers living on the coast of Lake Erie likely think it’s pretty valuable information to know if algal blooms are dangerous.
Yet Pruitt and others of his ilk seem to think that the EPA is part of a vast conspiracy to regulate for the sake of regulating and to control industry with an iron fist — and to make money. Take climate regulation, for example. President Donald Trump may have prompted mockery when he claimed climate change was a “hoax” perpetuated by the Chinese government, but he wasn’t that far off from what the staunchest climate deniers believe is true.
The examples are myriad — and ludicrous. In the days leading up to Hurricane Irma’s landfall, Rush Limbaugh lambasted hurricane experts, first by challenging their expertise and then by saying they were part of a bigger system designed to monetize fear. “Now, in the official meteorological circles, you have an abundance of people who believe that man-made climate change is real,” he told his audience. “And they believe that Al Gore is correct when he has written — and he couldn’t be more wrong — that climate change is creating more hurricanes and stronger hurricanes.”
(Al Gore is not a climate scientist, but he is also not wrong. Climate scientists have concluded that climate change is increasing the strength of hurricanes, and the record-breaking hurricanes earlier this year were likely exacerbated by warmer-than-normal Gulf water temperatures.)
Limbaugh explained how he thinks the collusion works:
You have major, major industries and businesses which prosper during times of crisis and panic, such as a hurricane, which could destroy or greatly damage people’s homes, and it could interrupt the flow of water and electricity… So the media benefits with the panic with increased eyeballs, and the retailers benefit from the panic with increased sales, and the TV companies benefit because they’re getting advertising dollars from the businesses that are seeing all this attention from customers.
But as someone from the National Weather Service — a sister agency to the National Hurricane Center — told ThinkProgress recently, “The main function of the National Weather Service mission is to save lives.” That’s why they issue warnings and why they track weather, so people like Limbaugh can prepare and even evacuate — which he did.
Limbaugh may sounds like a conspiracy theorist here, but he’s got company. Last week, Robert Murray, a coal baron close to the Trump administration, claimed on the PBS NewsHour that, “A lot of people, like Albert Gore, have made a lot of money off” the idea of climate change. Myron Ebell, a member of the administration’s EPA transition team, told a crowd in Brussels this year that, “Whenever you hear environmental expert, think urban eco-imperialist.” He added, “The climate-industrial complex has figured out how to get rich on the basis of [alarming] people about climate.”
This anti-environmental regulation stance doesn’t end at climate science. Another Trump supporter, Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz (R), used his first piece of legislation to suggest the EPA be cut entirely.
Pruitt has also repeatedly claimed that environmental studies are used as political cudgels to make policy. “Science should not be something that’s just thrown about to try to dictate policy in Washington, D.C.,” Pruitt said earlier this year, shortly after he declined to ban a pesticide that his own EPA scientists determined was dangerous to human health.
“The idea that science should not dictate nor influence policy is insane. It really doesn’t need to be said that science is one of the key foundations of modern society,” countered the blog IFLScience! “Forget America – what about the world? Without science dictating policy, smallpox wouldn’t have been eradicated, hundreds of millions of children would not be alive, and we wouldn’t know that climate change was an existential threat to life on Earth.”
But the idea that the EPA is corrupt and anti-business — especially regarding climate change — has long lurked in Washington. For years, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chair of the House Committee on Space, Science, and Technology, has attacked and subpoenaed government scientists whose findings contradict Smith’s insistence that climate change isn’t real or caused by humans.
He has also repeatedly introduced legislation that would have — as Pruitt has now promised to do — banned scientists on the advisory panel from receiving EPA grant funding.
In 2015, a columnist at the National Review wrote:
In truth, the overwhelming majority of climate-research funding comes from the federal government and left-wing foundations. And while the energy industry funds both sides of the climate debate, the government/foundation monies go only toward research that advances the warming regulatory agenda. With a clear public-policy outcome in mind, the government/foundation gravy train is a much greater threat to scientific integrity.
Sec. of Energy Rick Perry and former White House adviser Steve Bannon have also suggested they believe climate change is a conspiracy. David Kreutzer, one of Pruitt’s top advisers and a former senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has spent years arguing against climate action. Earlier this year, he called the Paris climate agreement a “gravy train” for clean energy companies.
There is a pattern of accusing climate science — as well as climate action — of being a for-profit enterprise.
Frankly, though, it makes sense that the government, through the EPA, has funded quite a bit of climate research. Climate change is a relatively new and incredibly urgent phenomenon. Many lives — and livelihoods — are at stake. Complicated, serious issues like climate change are exactly what taxpayers should be spending money to better understand.
It’s unlikely that Trump’s EPA is going to focus on funding climate research, but Pruitt’s order applies to all research — whether it is on climate, pollution, or pesticides. Ultimately, it will gut the field of experts available to advise the agency, tilting it in favor of industry interesting.
“Pruitt’s purge has a single goal: get rid of scientists who tell us the facts about threats to our environment and health,” the Natural Resource Defense Council’s Jennifer Sass said in a statement. “There’s a reason he won’t apply the same limits to scientists funded by corporate polluters. Now the only scientists on Pruitt’s good list will be those with funding from polluters supporting Trump’s agenda to make America toxic again.”
Given Pruitt’s cozy history with industry voices — from coal to Big Oil to Big Ag — it’s not hard to imagine the kind of scientists who will advise the EPA going forward — and they won’t be working for the environment.