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EPA Advisory Panel Changes Split Science Committee

JUL 30, 2019
Policy changes altering the membership of the Environmental Protection Agency’s science advisory committees were rolled into a broader dispute at a recent hearing over the Trump administration’s use of experts in federal decision-making.
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Science Policy Analyst

At a hearing this month, Democrats and Republicans on the House Science Committee debated whether recent changes to EPA’s external advisory panels amount to an attempt to sideline scientific analysis in agency decision-making.

A Government Accountability Office report released just before the hearing finds that the composition of two of EPA’s highest-level panels, the Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), has shifted considerably since 2017. Early in the Trump administration, EPA decided not to renew many panel members’ terms and instituted new member selection policies barring EPA grant-holders from serving. Academics, GAO finds, now comprise a smaller fraction of all members.

Although the report does not assess how these shifts may correlate with changes in the advice EPA is receiving, the committee’s Democratic leadership alleged the agency’s moves are having a detrimental effect. Investigations and Oversight Committee Chair Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ) said EPA is “flushing out years of experience and bringing in a number of climate deniers and unqualified individuals, which weakens the quality and integrity of the advice the advisory committee offers.”

Sherrill and other Democrats also argued that President Trump’s recent order to cull advisory panels across federal agencies is, alongside EPA’s treatment of its panels, part of a general “attack on science.”

A recent GAO report finds that after President Trump’s inauguration the proportion of academics on EPA’s Science Advisory Board decreased from 77% to 50%, while the proportion on EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors dropped from 65% to 20%. No comparable shift occurred during the early months of the Obama administration.  (Image credit – GAO)

A recent GAO report finds that after President Trump’s inauguration the proportion of academics on EPA’s Science Advisory Board decreased from 77% to 50%, while the proportion on EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors dropped from 65% to 20%. No comparable shift occurred during the early months of the Obama administration.

(Image credit – GAO)

Lawmakers and witnesses probe changes to EPA panels

EPA has justified its policy regarding grant holders as a way to tamp down on conflicts of interest. Under its former Republican leadership, the Science Committee offered a similar justification in advancing controversial legislation that would have required such a policy by statute.

Sherrill, though, noted the new EPA policy has placed no restrictions on participation from “people who are paid by the industries that EPA regulates,” which she said represents “an arguably greater conflict of interest.” Witnesses invited to testify at the hearing by the committee’s Democratic majority reinforced the view that the goal of EPA’s moves is to undermine its advisory panels’ integrity and independence.

University of Minnesota environmental chemist Deborah Swackhamer, who chaired BOSC before EPA removed her in mid-2017, attested that the committee’s shakeup had proven highly disruptive. She said that following her departure, BOSC’s next executive committee meeting did not take place until last month, representing nearly two years of “important time lost while EPA research and planning proceeded without the benefit of BOSC advice.” She further asserted that BOSC and other committees had been “reconstituted to create biased, non-independent committees.”

Thomas Burke, a Johns Hopkins University public health professor and a former BOSC and SAB member and internal EPA science advisor, said the agency’s advisory panel policies prevent it from accessing the expertise of “leading researchers who have received competitive grants in the fields most relevant to the EPA mission.” He asserted EPA’s plans to restrict the studies used to justify new regulations and its proposed cuts to agency-supported research are similarly “actions that have undermined science.”

Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC), the ranking member of the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee, expressed his support for EPA’s new policies. Concerning the decline in academic membership on SAB, he remarked, “Over three-fourths of a panel affiliated with one stakeholder group doesn’t strike me as balanced. It is clear to me that EPA leadership followed the direction of the law as they worked to restore balance to this critical committee.”

Burke, though, cautioned that the role of advisory panels is distinct from stakeholder consultation. “We’re getting our signals mixed here today, between stakeholder comment and scientific peer review. I agree that stakeholders have an enormous role to play in policy decisions. But with scientific peer review, it’s about expertise and the right disciplines at the table,” he said.

GAO official Alfredo Gomez was also on hand to testify about his office’s report, which was originally requested by a group of 10 Democratic senators in November 2017 following EPA’s advisory panel shakeup. Gomez said that in appointing new panel members, the agency has generally continued to follow established procedures, except in the case of SAB and its Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.

“We found that the appointment packets for these two committees did not contain documents to reflect staff recommendations on the best-qualified and most appropriate candidates to serve on advisory committees, which is called for in EPA’s established process,” Gomez said. He reported that EPA management had decided whom to appoint after reviewing an entire list of nominated individuals and told GAO that this was “a more robust process.” Gomez said the established process encourages qualifications to be transparently documented.

GAO’s report also finds that for about a quarter of the financial disclosure forms that it reviewed from nominees to various committees, an ethics official had not signed and dated the filing. “There was really a lack of assurance that those folks at EPA had done the review and that those folks were free of conflicts,” Gomez said. In its response to GAO’s review, EPA indicated its Ethics Office was understaffed and that the situation is now remedied.

Democrats fear presidential order will hamper advice

Rep. Mikie Sherrill  (Image credit – Office of Rep. Sherrill)

Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-NJ), who chairs the Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Science Committee, is the lead sponsor of the newly introduced Security American Science and Technology Act.

(Image credit – Office of Rep. Sherrill)

Beyond EPA’s changes to its advisory panels, Democratic committee members alleged President Trump’s executive order directing agencies to eliminate a fraction of their advisory committees is also part of a general trend. “It appears that this order is an attempt to hinder agencies’ ability to solicit objective, transparent, expert advice,” Sherrill remarked.

Environment Subcommittee Ranking Member Roger Marshall (R-KS) disagreed. Welcoming the directive, he said , “This executive order will help federal agencies reevaluate their needs and focus on the future of science, not the needs of the past.” He called for bipartisan support to implement the rule, pointing to similar orders signed by Presidents Reagan and Clinton. He also suggested the issue is a separate one from EPA’s policies and that the order is aimed primarily at “halting wasteful spending and improving the quality of our advisory committees government-wide.”

Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), though, said that the earlier orders had failed to produce the anticipated efficiencies and ultimately resulted in higher costs. Earlier this month, she sent letters to leaders of eight science agencies asking them to provide information by Aug. 1 on their plans for implementing the order and its anticipated impacts on the advice they receive. Agencies have until Sept. 30 to comply with Trump’s order.

“Such directives are clumsy at best and malicious at worst,” Johnson said at the hearing, adding, “There is no reason to presume that one-third of committees have exhausted their usefulness. A cap on committees serves only to create a barrier for agencies to solicit expert advice in a transparent manner.”

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