The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is poised to announce a controversial rule today that would ban researchers with active agency grants from serving on EPA advisory boards.
The announcement is expected to coincide with appointments to several agency advisory panels. In crafting the policy, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt sided with his agency’s most vociferous critics, who claim that EPA science panels are stacked with scientists who are biased in favour of the agency’s regulatory agenda.
Scientists and environmentalists blasted the policy as hypocritical and dangerous, saying it will exclude many top researchers while rendering the volunteer posts less attractive for those who remain eligible.
Peter Thorne, a toxicologist who chaired the agency’s main science advisory board through September, says that the board already has policies in place to deal with conflicts of interest—such as those related to research by a board member or financial interests among industry scientists. “I’m really baffled as to why this is necessary,” says Thorne, a professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.
The EPA’s new policy borrows from legislation backed by Republican lawmakers that has been circulating in the US Congress for several years. In March, the US House of Representatives passed the latest version, which would restrict scientists with EPA grants from serving on advisory panels and loosen rules that seek to address any conflicts of interest related to industry scientists who serve on the panels. The fate of that bill is uncertain, however, since the Senate—which would have to give its approval before the legislation could become law—has not taken action on the matter.
“The reason it couldn’t get through Congress is that it doesn’t make any sense,” says Andrew Rosenberg, who heads the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), an advocacy group in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “It turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head.”
Rosenberg’s group analysed the current membership of the EPA’s main science advisory board and found that five of the 47 members could be barred by the new policy.
But the EPA restrictions on advisory-board members could soon affect a much larger swathe of panel appointments. The terms of 15 people on the agency's main science advisory board expired at the end of September. EPA watchers are also expecting to soon see appointments to the Board of Scientific Counselors, which advises the EPA’s main research arm, and a third panel that advises the agency on air regulations.
The agency's overhaul of its advisory boards has been in the works for months. The EPA sparked an uproar in May and June by dismissing dozens of scientists who had served a single three-year term on the Board of Scientific Counselors. In the past, the agency has appointed many scientists for a second term to provide more continuity for programme managers who are seeking input on the vast array of research efforts at the agency.
This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on October 31, 2017.