Scientists accuse Scott Pruitt of ‘stacking the deck’ against scientific integrity

EPA already had good processes in place to manage conflicts of interest, they say.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in October 2017 that he would exclude anyone from serving on any of the 23 EPA scientific advisory boards if they had received EPA grants to fund any of their research. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced in October 2017 that he would exclude anyone from serving on any of the 23 EPA scientific advisory boards if they had received EPA grants to fund any of their research. CREDIT: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Scientists, doctors, and environmental groups are pushing back against the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) efforts to purge scientists who had previously received EPA grants from sitting on the agency’s advisory committees. A directive issued by Administrator Scott Pruitt in October 2017 represents an attempt to fill these advisory committees with more industry-friendly officials whose belief systems align with his anti-environmental protection agenda, the critics say.

The Union of Concerned Scientists filed a lawsuit on Tuesday against Pruitt’s directive. The lawsuit comes one month after Earthjustice filed a similar complaint challenging Pruitt’s attempt to remove scientists from the agency’s advisory committees.

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In its lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts, the Union of Concerned Scientists contended Pruitt failed to explain why scientists and experts who receive similar funding from other sources — scientists affiliated with private industry or local governments — fall outside the scope of the purge.

By singling out academic members of the scientific community who are receiving EPA grants, Pruitt’s directive “lays bare its real function: to stack the deck against scientific integrity,” the lawsuit reads.

“Pruitt’s real objective here is to populate the advisory boards with more industry-friendly opinions,” Joshua Goldman, senior legal analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in an interview. “That’s so that advisory boards don’t push back against the regulatory rollbacks that Pruitt has engaged in over the past year.”

The EPA’s Science Advisory Board, for example, now includes 14 new members who consult or work for the fossil fuel or chemical industries, which gave Pruitt nearly $320,000 for his campaigns in Oklahoma as a state senator and attorney general, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. In 1978, Congress directed the EPA to establish the Science Advisory Board, which today is a 47-member panel, to provide scientific advice to the administrator.

Protect Democracy, a nonprofit government watchdog group composed of former White House and administration lawyers, and Jenner & Block, a Chicago-based law firm, are representing the Union of Concerned Scientists and an individual EPA advisory committee member — Lianne Sheppard — in the lawsuit against the EPA.

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Sheppard, a professor and assistant chair of environmental and occupational health sciences and professor of biostatistics at the University of Washington, told ThinkProgress that Pruitt’s directive was unnecessary because the EPA already has good processes in place to review and manage conflicts of interest and ensure fair and balanced expert advice on its advisory panels. Pruitt “is disproportionately reducing the voice of academic scientists,” she said. “I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the public good.”

Sheppard currently sits on the EPA’s seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, a panel that offers insight on air pollution standards and health effects. She has one year left in her term on the committee and is eligible to be reappointed for another three-year term when her current term expires next year.

The EPA, however, could force her off the panel before her current term expires. In 2017, the EPA removed two members of the panel — Donna Kenski, an expert on air quality monitoring with the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium, and Ronald Wyzga, an expert on the health effects of air pollution with the Electric Power Research Institute — before their three-year terms had ended.

Prior to Pruitt’s directive, Sheppard served on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and was part of a research project funded by an EPA grant. As a result of Pruitt’s order, she was forced to give up her role as an investigator on the research project into the health effects of air pollution that had been awarded a $3 million EPA grant. If Pruitt rescinds the ban, Sheppard could resume her role as an investigator in the research project she left, according to the lawsuit.

On October 31, Pruitt officially issued the directive excluding anyone from serving on any of the 23 EPA scientific advisory boards if they had received EPA grants to fund any of their research. The directive appeared in a document titled “Strengthening and Improving Membership on EPA Federal Advisory Committees.” In a speech at the Heritage Foundation earlier in October, Pruitt argued that receiving grant money from the EPA raises questions about “the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way.”

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The content of the memorandum that went out with Pruitt’s directive is “manufactured,” Protect Democracy counsel Jamila Benkato told ThinkProgress. “It’s an arbitrary designation that singles out academic and nonprofit scientists.”

The scientists who work on research projects funded by agency grants “are not beholden to the EPA,” Benkato explained. Pruitt’s directive is an attempt to “delegitimize some of the most eminent scientists in our country,” she added.

In December, Earthjustice filed a similar lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, arguing that Pruitt’s new policy is an “illegal attempt to override federal ethics rules” and is arbitrarily biased in favor of polluting industries. “If it’s allowed to remain in effect, the policy will undermine the integrity of EPA science and introduce pro-polluter bias into agency decisions and programs,” Earthjustice said in a statement.

The parties to the Earthjustice lawsuit are Physicians for Social Responsibility, National Hispanic Medical Association, and the International Society for Children’s Health and Environment, along with Professor Edward Avol and scientists Dr. Robyn Wilson and Dr. Joseph Arvai.

Prior to Pruitt taking over as administrator, the EPA held the position that working under an EPA grant does not prevent a scientist from providing independent technical or scientific advice to the agency. “They’re claiming the academic scientists and doctors are biased and then replacing them with industry representatives,” Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley, the lead attorney on the case, said in a statement at the time the complaint was filed. “The hypocrisy is kind of stunning.”

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The Union of Concerned Scientists, in its lawsuit, asked the federal court to overturn Pruitt’s directive and prevent EPA staff from implementing it. According to the lawsuit, the directive is arbitrary, without any factual or legal grounding, and violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires advisory committees to be fairly balanced and protected from inappropriate influence by the appointing authority.