Issue Date: April 1, 2013
The Environmental Protection Agency regularly makes science-based decisions such as determining the safe daily dose of a specific contaminant. These decisions eventually influence regulations, such as cleanup requirements at contaminated sites.
For decades, EPA has turned to scientists from outside the agency to guide and review the analyses underlying such decisions. The scientists EPA calls on to constitute boards—such as its general Science Advisory Board (SAB) or the more focused Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC)—critique the agency’s efforts and may endorse or recommend adjustments to EPA’s scientific reasoning.
Now, Republicans in the House of Representatives are taking a closer look at whether changes are needed in the makeup of SAB, which historically has been heavy on academics and sparse on scientists from industry because of federal conflict-of-interest requirements. These lawmakers are also accusing EPA of stacking SAB and CASAC, which operates as a standing committee of SAB, with scientists who get agency grants and others likely to back EPA’s conclusions.
House Republicans are voicing support for legislation that would boost industry representation on SAB. And they are mulling over whether to limit the number of advisers who get grants or other financial support for their research from EPA.
Rep. Christopher D. Stewart (R-Utah), chairman of the House Science, Space & Technology Subcommittee on Environment, is drafting legislation to change the way EPA manages the makeup of SAB. That not-yet-introduced measure was discussed at a subcommittee hearing on March 20.
Stewart’s draft bill would mandate that scientists “with substantial and relevant expertise” not be excluded from serving on SAB “due to affiliation with or representation of entities that might have a potential interest in the board’s advisory activities.” This would open the board to industry scientists who work for companies that could be affected by the regulations that follow from EPA scientific determinations. These scientists would have to publicly disclose their employer’s interest in the outcome of the agency’s decision.
This part of the draft measure has garnered some bipartisan interest. “I am not opposed to industry-funded experts participating on SAB or in the peer review process at EPA. Their expert insight into processes and industry conduct can provide valuable guidance,” Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, the subcommittee’s top Democrat, said at the hearing.
The draft bill is similar to a bill introduced by the Science, Space & Technology Committee’s former chairman, Rep. Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas), in September 2012. Hall’s bill died when the 112th Congress adjourned on Jan. 3. One key difference, however, is that Hall’s bill would have set 10% as the maximum portion of SAB members receiving EPA grants, contracts, cooperative agreements, or other financial assistance. This provision is not now part of Stewart’s draft, but it could be resurrected.
Some sort of restriction on the number of grant recipients might be needed, Stewart said. “According to the Congressional Research Service, almost 60% of the members of EPA’s chartered SAB and CASAC have directly received grants from the agency since 2000. These advisers served as principal or coinvestigators for EPA grants totaling roughly $140 million.”
The data Stewart cited are laid out in a March 12 memo to the subcommittee from the Congressional Research Service, the public policy research arm of Congress. The memo emphasizes that EPA typically awarded each of the grants to an academic institution employing an adviser, not to the scientist directly. “Only a very small proportion, if any, of the grant may be paid in the form of salary to the member” of SAB or CASAC, according to the memo, which the subcommittee provided to C&EN. Plus, some of the grants cited in the memo were funded by multiple agencies, with only a part of the total money coming from EPA.
“There are people who are in the clique who are getting the grants and are getting the jobs” as advisers to EPA, commented subcommittee member Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.). He added that he wants Stewart’s legislation to limit the number of grant recipients on SAB.
Among the witnesses the subcommittee heard from was Michael E. Honeycutt, director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s toxicology division and a critic of EPA science.
“I believe that receiving funding from EPA in the form of research grants could be seen as a potential source of bias,” particularly for review of the scientific underpinnings of national air quality standards, he said. “Under the current system, EPA can select who it wishes to fund, choose key studies to support regulatory decisions, place the authors of those studies on CASAC, and then ask their opinion on the resulting analysis and policy.”
Also testifying was Francesca T. Grifo, science policy fellow at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who contributed to a recent report by the nonprofit Keystone Center on how federal agencies can handle conflict of interest and bias when selecting members of scientific advisory committees. Grifo explained that conflict of interest involves a financial interest in the outcome of a scientific review. Bias is a point of view based on intellectual or ideological differences. Advisory panels, Grifo said, should strive both to eliminate conflicts of interest and to manage bias.
Witnesses at the hearing included no current members of SAB or CASAC.
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