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Grant recipients barred as U.S. EPA advisers

Agency chief makes room for more industry scientists

by Cheryl Hogue
November 1, 2017 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 95, ISSUE 44

Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

In an unprecedented shift, panels that provide science advice to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will have fewer academic scientists and more industry experts and state regulators.

Under an Oct. 31 directive from EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, people will no longer be able to serve on three scientific advisory boards while they receive EPA research funding. Dozens of academics have historically served as external EPA advisers, along with a smattering of scientists from industry and state regulators.

Pruitt says the move will ensure that the advisers are financially independent from the agency.

The changes “suggest a profound misunderstanding of how scientific grants are awarded and how science is conducted,” says Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a member of the Senate Chemistry Caucus. “To suggest that academic scientists personally profit from grants they receive to conduct research while representatives of regulated industries do not benefit from how regulations are implemented is extremely disingenuous.”

“Leading scientific experts who are conducting environmental science research should not be prohibited from participating on EPA science advisory boards and committees if they have met the appropriate financial conflict of interest policy,” says the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

But Republican leaders in Congress applaud Pruitt’s action. They include Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, chair of the House of Representatives’ Science, Space & Technology Committee, who has long supported legislation to forbid grant recipients from serving as EPA advisors.

As of September, 22 of the 47 members on the agency’s flagship Science Advisory Board (SAB) had received EPA grants at some time in the past, although not all of them currently receive EPA research funds, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists. SAB provides advice on a broad array of issues including chemical safety, water pollution, and cleanup of contaminated land.

Pruitt says the members of the agency’s advisory boards will now be chosen to reflect geographic diversity. In contrast, technical expertise was the primary concern in EPA’s choice of advisers for decades under both Republican and Democratic administrations.

To chair the SAB, Pruitt tapped Michael E. Honeycutt, who directs the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s toxicology division. Honeycutt has long criticized EPA’s scientific assessments of chemicals as too stringent. Under Honeycutt’s leadership, the Texas agency has conducted its own assessments of chemicals, many of them air pollutants, and concluded that the substances are less toxic than EPA determined. Honeycutt endorsed the concept of barring EPA grant recipients from serving on the SAB in a 2013 testimony before Congress.

Pruitt selected Tony Cox, who runs a Denver business analytics consulting company to chair the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Board, which focuses on air pollution issues. Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer of Covanta, a waste management and incineration firm, is the new chair of the Board of Scientific Counselors, which reviews EPA’s in-house research. Gilman headed EPA’s Office of Research & Development for two years during the administration of President George W. Bush.



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doug neckers (November 1, 2017 6:00 PM)
A balance is more sensible? This is dumb.
David Mangino (November 1, 2017 7:01 PM)
Apparently when it is too difficult to deny science outright, their only alternative is to remove it from the equation.
david chettle (November 1, 2017 8:29 PM)
The edicts from the white house of cards all bear the same genetic imprint. You elected him!
Herbert S. Skovronek, Ph. D. (November 1, 2017 8:32 PM)
Once again, the trump team is removing all facts from the discussion. EPA's primary goal is human and environmental safety. Can Pruitt's appointees maintain that mission? Let's be sure to hold them all accountable.

Once again, I am dismayed at the Am Chemical Society's unwillingness to take a stand. You can't waffle forever or there will be nothing left to waffle about!
Shankarank (November 2, 2017 6:47 AM)
His role is almost similar to that of Ayatollah of Iran! Can't believe that an advanced country with equally advanced technologies would have someone in the administration that only the likes of Taliban would love it! What a shame.
Neal Anderson (November 3, 2017 12:37 PM)
Currently the mission of the EPA is “to protect human health and the environment,” while ensuring that “natural resources, human health, [and] economic growth…are similarly considered.” In addition the EPA’s charge is to ensure that “the United States plays a leadership role in working with other nations to protect the global environment.” [] Pruitt and the EPA reject climate change. Trump’s appointees make a mockery of the EPA and other agencies. It is time we and the ACS stand up for science.
Ron Myers (November 8, 2017 8:24 AM)
To be absolutely clear, I'm not a fan of Trump administration policies regarding climate change denial, etc. However, on this specific decision highlighted in this article, I am in full agreement. Academics or others who receive EPA funding should be unable to serve as advisors. In my opinion, academics seem to quite involved with establishing startup companies and therein lies a possible conflict of interest; the fact that the academics may have signed appropriate financial conflict of interest agreements is really not important here. It comes down to the perception that EPA-funded academics could be biased.
lana (November 13, 2017 2:33 PM)
@Ron Meyers, Following that logic no-body could serve because they might start a company.

And in terms of perception...
Do you really think it looks worse to have someone in a consulting firm or affected industry on a "scientific advisory" committee than a professor?

Finally 'academics who receive EPA funding'.... are you serious? you do understand these are grants to research scientific and technological issues? By law the grants cannot touch the grantee's personal accounts, many of the grants have limits on their application towards any salaries...and the researchers salaries are set by their universities and do not go up and down with grants.

The next time you go to wax idiotic about academic funding on C&ENews remember everyone here understands how academia works.
Robert Buntrock (November 16, 2017 3:05 PM)
And the industry reps don't have a financial conflict of interest? Much more so than the academics.
Robert Buntrock (November 16, 2017 3:07 PM)
This is the latest in travesties and SNFUS by this administration. Further intensification in the War on Science.
Robert Arnts (December 14, 2017 10:01 AM)
I had a 35 year career in EPA's Office of Research & Development as a research chemist. Over that period I had numerous reviews of my research conducted by these external reviewers. My observation is that the review panel is tasked with reviewing such a broad spectrum of in-house research that you were lucky to have one or two persons on the panel with the requisite background to ask informed questions regarding one's research. It would seem that Pruitt's approach is even less likely to provide the proper technical expertise necessary to conduct these reviews.

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