Scientists Getting EPA Grants Can’t Advise Agency, Pruitt Says

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By Amena H. Saiyid

Scientists who have received EPA grants to the “tune of literally tens of millions of dollars” won’t be allowed to serve on the agency’s advisory boards, Administrator Scott Pruitt announced Oct. 17.

The goal of this directive, which Pruitt will issue next week, is to ensure that the scientific advice the Environmental Protection Agency receives is independent, transparent, and objective, Pruitt said at an event hosted by the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Pruitt questioned the independence, truthfulness, and transparency of recommendations that the agency received from individuals on various advisory boards that have been receiving substantial funding from the EPA, “sometimes going back years and years.”

The upcoming directive would be in line with Pruitt’s desire to alter the makeup of the EPA’s independent science panels to avoid what he termed conflict of interests. At his Jan. 18 confirmation hearing, Pruitt singled out the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which has pressed the agency to tighten air quality standards.

Grants Fund Relevant Research

Most of the EPA’s grants come out of the Office of Research and Development’s National Center for Environmental Research. The grant applications are externally reviewed and ranked before the EPA conducts a “relevancy” review to ensure that grants are given only to those scientists whose work has been rated as “very good” or “excellent” at supporting agency decisions and are deemed relevant to environmental problems.

The EPA has about 23 advisory committees that advise it on a range of environmental issues including ozone standards, pesticide use, and human health studies, according to a government database.

The advisory panels that would be most affected by Pruitt’s directive are the ones that most influence the EPA’s regulatory agenda, such as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, Science Advisory Board, and Board of Scientific Counselors, according to Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science & Democracy for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.

For example, six of the seven members of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee have received grants from the EPA, based on a Bloomberg Environment review of an agency database.

‘Tens of Millions of Dollars’ in Grants

EPA records show that the following members received agency grants:

  •  Judith Chow of the Desert Research Institute received a grant to study particulate matter;
  •   Ana Diez Roux of Drexel University received four grants, including $32 million for a study on particulate matter;
  •  Ivan Fernandez of the University of Maine received two grants, including one for a study of forest ecosystems;
  •  Jack Harkema of Michigan State University received 16 grants, including for research on particulate matter;
  •  Donna Kenski of the Lake Michigan Air Directors Consortium received $102,000 for an ozone study; and
  •  Elizabeth Sheppard of the University of Washington received 11 grants, including almost $33 million for a study on particulate matter conducted by several universities.
The lone member of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee not listed on EPA’s grants database is Ronald Wyzga, who works for the nonprofit organization the Electric Power Research Institute, which said most of its members are electric utilities.

Steve Milloy, senior fellow at E&E Legal Inc., said Pruitt’s announcement is “huge” because it will allow the agency to get a more diverse group of people to serve on the clean air committee. Right now, he said most of the members are EPA grantees who dominate the panel’s proceedings and are “all bought and paid” to do the agency’s bidding.

Milloy is part of the E&E Legal team that sued the EPA for allegedly forming the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee Particulate Matter Review Panel, a challenge that was later voluntarily dropped.

Republicans in the House and Congress have been pushing for legislation to limit the participation of scientists in clean air committees who lawmakers said were biased toward EPA policies, particularly during the Obama administration.

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) praised Pruitt’s announcement, chiding the Obama administration for a “lack of transparency.”

“Utter nonsense” is how Rosenberg described Pruitt’s directive. He said Pruitt is turning conflict of interest on its head by comparing EPA grantees to those scientists whose research is backed by a for-profit industry. Scientists who served for no pay on these panels will have no incentive left to advise on critical public policy issues, he said.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, Pruitt’s directive is based on the Science Advisory Board Reform Act (H.R. 1431), which the House passed mostly along party lines toward the end of March.

To contact the reporter on this story: Amena H. Saiyid in Washington at asaiyid@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at rdaigle@bna.com

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