EPA Bars Grant Recipients from Serving on Agency Advisory Panels

Published December 18, 2017

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt is barring scientists receiving taxpayer-funded EPA grants from serving on any of the agency’s 22 advisory boards, changing a longstanding agency policy.

“Whatever science comes out of EPA shouldn’t be political science,” Pruitt said in an Oct. 31 statement. “From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the agency.”

A memorandum outlining the new policy states no member of any of EPA’s federal advisory committees can be currently receiving EPA grants, either as a principal investigator or coinvestigator, or in a position that otherwise would reap substantial financial benefit from an EPA grant. The policy does not apply to recipients of state, tribal, or local EPA grants.

Conflicts of Interest

Members of EPA’s advisory committees typically are drawn from universities and other taxpayer-supported research institutes. Historically, many members have served on EPA advisory panels over multiple terms while receiving millions of dollars in grants from the agency. This has raised questions about the panels’ objectivity in assessing the science behind EPA’s regulatory decisions and grant approvals.

In just the last three years, members of three agency panels—the Science Advisory Board (SAB), Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), and Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC)—received upwards of $77 million in direct EPA grant funding while concurrently serving on those committees, EPA reports.

New Faces

Pruitt also announced plans to appoint new leadership and new members to SAB, CASAC, and BOSC. In the spirit of what he calls cooperative federalism, Pruitt said he would significantly expand geographic diversity and state, tribal, and local participation on the agency’s advisory committees.

Given the range of environmental and public health issues across the country, appointments will emphasize individuals from historically unrepresented or underrepresented states and regions. EPA says it will seek new perspectives and rotate membership regularly to avoid prolonged or continuous service on its advisory committees.

“To ensure that EPA is receiving the best independent science advice, I am appointing highly qualified experts and scientists to these important committees,” Pruitt said in a statement.

Within a week of his announcement, Pruitt had placed 66 new experts on SAB, CASAC, and BOSC.

Michael Honeycutt, the new chair of the SAB, and Louis Anthony Cox, who will take the helm at CASAC, have been harsh critics of EPA science in the past. Honeycutt, director of the Toxicology Division at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has charged EPA with overstating the risks of exposure to mercury and other substances. Cox, president of Denver-based Cox Associates, an applied research company specializing in evaluating health, safety, and environmental risks, has been highly critical of EPA’s smog regulations.

‘Striking a Lethal Blow’

David Lewis, a former career senior-level microbiologist in EPA’s Office of Research and Development and current research director at the New Jersey-based Focus for Health Foundation, applauds Pruitt for walling off EPA’s science advisors from its research grants.

“Pruitt is striking a lethal blow at the very heart of the system EPA has used to support its policies, which are purely politically driven,” Lewis said.

Jay Lehr, science director for The Heartland Institute, which publishes Environment & Climate News, says the change to the way science advisory panels are chosen should improve the agency’s climate science assessments.

 “The previous assembly of all EPA advisory panels was a disgrace for more than three decades,” said Lehr. “Choosing people to whom the agency was giving significant amounts of grant money would be a scandal in the private sector, and it is indicative of what kind of rogue agency EPA has been for years.

“While we have a long way to go in cleansing EPA of its toxic practices, this action is part of an excellent beginning,” Lehr said. “Now if the new panels can review and shelve the disgraceful Climate Science Special Report that contains over 500 pages of unsubstantiated claims, they will have done the nation a great service by ceasing to chase the great carbon dioxide boogie man.”

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph.D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research.