Taking the “Scientific” and “Advisory” out of the EPA Scientific Advisory Board

by Micah Berman — Monday, Dec. 1, 2014

On November 18, the U.S. House voted (mostly on partly lines) to pass the EPA Science Advisory Board Act of 2014. Although the name of the Act is pretty dull, its impact would be significant. Among other problems, the bill would make the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) less scientific, and it would prohibit it from being, well, advisory.

As for the “scientific” part, the Act would explicitly permit members with financial ties to regulated industries, so long as they disclose the conflict of interest. As summarized by environmental groups opposing the bill, that is “inconsistent with a set of nearly universally accepted scientific principles to eliminate or limit financial conflicts.” More troubling, though, is a provision stating that “Board members may not participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review or evaluation of their own work” (emphasis added). If “indirectly” is read broadly, it could make it nearly impossible for experts with relevant expertise, whose science is informing the EPA’s work, to participate in many of the SAB’s reviews. The Union of Concerned Scientists noted that this provision “effectively turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head, with the bizarre presumption that corporate experts with direct financial interests are not conflicted while academics who work on these issues are.”

As for the SAB’s advisory role, the bill includes language stating: “In carrying out its advisory activities, the Board shall strive to avoid making policy determinations or recommendations, and, in the event the Board feels compelled to offer policy advice, shall explicitly distinguish between scientific determinations and policy  advice.” (I wasn’t kidding – it really prohibits the advisory board form acting in an advisory role.) It’s hard to even imagine what that would mean in practice. The primary job of the SAB is to examine whether the available science supports the policies that the EPA is considering. The science and the policy cannot be separated, nor should they be. “Science” does not exist in a vacuum. Scientific findings suggest the need for certain policy approaches — and it is the SAB’s role to examine that connection. One suspects that the real objection here is not that the SAB is inappropriately engaging in “policy determinations”; it is that the bill’s sponsors don’t like what the science is suggesting. After all, the bill’s author, Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), is a climate change denier who has publicly stated that the EPA should be dissolved.

One more provision of this bill deserves mention. It states that the EPA must ensure that “the scientific and technical points of view represented on . . . the Board are fairly balanced.” If this means that members must embody a diverse set of disciplinary backgrounds and subject-matter expertise, it is unobjectionable. My concern, however, that it might be code for the idea of that politically (though not scientifically) controversial positions, such as claim that climate change is not the result of man-made activity, must be “fairly” represented on the SAB. Needless to say, implementing such “balance” would make a mockery of the SAB and its long-standing efforts to provide the EPA with expert and unbiased scientific advice.

The EPA Science Advisory Board Act now heads to the Senate. Even if it passes the Senate, it would likely face a veto. Nonetheless, it may well surface again in the next Congress, perhaps as an rider to other EPA-related legislation. Those interested in the scientific integrity of regulatory agencies should keep a close eye on this legislation. To me, it represents a troubling, under-the-radar effort to kill the messenger (the SAB), because a majority in Congress seems not to like the message (environmental science).

One additional note:

The day after passing the EPA Science Advisory Board Act, Congress passed the equally problematic Secret Science Reform Act of 2014. This Act would prohibit the EPA from adopting any standard or regulation unless “all scientific and technical information relied on to support such . . . action is . . . publicly available online in a manner that is sufficient for independent analysis and substantial reproduction of research results” (emphasis added). A coalition of scientific organizations has outlined some of the problems with this language, including the following:

This provision seems to adopt a very narrow view of scientific information solely based on laboratory experiments . . . . [S]uch a restriction would eliminate the use of most epidemiological and public health data, such as those regarding the public health impacts of air pollution, because these data are collected in long-term studies following individuals longitudinally [and are therefore not “reproducible”].

In the clever guise of promoting transparency, this is another attempt to prevent the EPA from moving forward with science-based regulations.

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