'I Can't Just Step Away From My Grant': Scientists Grapple With EPA Head's Call To End Funding

Nov 30, 2017

In October, the administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, ordered scientists who receive EPA grants to either end those grants or resign from EPA scientific advisory boards. But what about industry-backed scientists? He said they can stay.

Pruitt’s reason for kicking off EPA-funded scientists from EPA committees is that they could be biased. “What’s most important at the agency is to have scientific advisors that are objective, independent-minded, providing transparent recommendations,” Pruitt says.  “And if we have individuals who are on those boards receiving money from the agency….that to me causes question on the independence, and the voracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way.”

Robyn Wilson is Associate Professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science at Ohio State University. She just received her first EPA grant to look at the effectiveness of the millions of dollars spent to improve water quality on the Great Lakes. And she’s been serving on EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board for the last couple of years, weighing in on issues like biogenic carbon emissions–asking “is burning wood different than burning coal?” She says Pruitt is forcing her to make a false choice.

“I can’t just step away from my grant,” she says. ”I don’t even know how that would work.”

Secretary Pruitt has questioned whether scientists who receive EPA funding can be objective. But Wilson, a behavioral decision scientist, says that goes against the basic tenet of science. “There’s a question that you’re trying to answer, and you design the most rigorous and thoughtful methods to collect data and answer that question, and then the data answers the question, the scientist doesn’t answer the question,” she says.

Wilson says her $150,000 grant and the modest compensation she gets for her time and travel to advise EPA don’t stack up to the money that states and industry have to lose. Positions like hers are being filled in part by representatives from industries the agency regulates. Plus, she says, she’d already been through a rigorous ethics training with EPA to avoid conflicts of interest.

The impact that the new policy could have on the guidance EPA gets from advisory boards isn’t yet known. Wilson thinks in the short-term, it will just make the boards ineffective. But in the long-term, the effect could be more obvious.

“In two more years they would essentially be able to replace the entire board with new members who have a bias in another direction,” she says. “So at that point, they would be more able to push a particular agenda, if the board was more biased toward a particular perspective, like a deregulatory perspective. I think we all assume that because that’s been a clear focus of this administration.”

Reporting by Kara Holsopple

 

A Profound Shift in Environmental Protection

Washington Post environmental reporter Brady Dennis covers the EPA under the Trump administration. He says that Pruitt’s decision to bar EPA-funded scientists from EPA committees turns the idea of conflict of interest on its head.

“If you’re getting money from the EPA or from the federal government, which is traditionally no strings attached, it’s not looking for a certain outcome,” says Dennis. “How is that more of a conflict of interest than a scientist or an expert who is paid by a company that has a real stake in how these regulations come out? I think we haven’t heard the last of the arguments about that.”

More industry-backed scientists, consultants and representatives of state agencies who have had a history of pushback against EPA regulations on scientific advisory committees, says Dennis, could likely result in regulations that are not as stringent or might not even be written.

“I think what you’ve seen under this administration and under Administrator Pruitt is a tendency to seize on industry viewpoints or industry-backed studies and data and hold that up as the reason for delaying action or rolling back regulation,” says Dennis.

In a high-profile case, Pruitt decided against banning the pesticide chlorpyrifos, which was proposed by the EPA under the Obama administration citing studies that show a strong connection between exposure to the pesticide and mental disability, ADHD and memory deficit in children.

Dow Chemical, the producer of the pesticide, lobbied hard against the ban. In the end, Pruitt chose to lean towards uncertainty in the EPA studies and leave chlorpyrifos on the market.

“That may have been different than in the past where the default is to let’s be sure of the safety of a product before we allow it to remain on the market,” says Dennis. “And you’ve seen this in different decisions that he’s [Pruitt] made over time. One strand that we’ve written about recently, you can see running through many of these decisions, is to cite industry-funded, industry-backed science. And in making those decisions, [industry-backed science] is on an equal playing field as the agency’s own scientists.”

As a reporter, Dennis finds the EPA to be very secretive under Pruitt.

“There is a lot of fear within the agency. So, it is hard to get people to talk with you, but also in some ways easier because these are obviously issues that bring up a lot of strong emotions,” says Dennis. “These are issues that folks at the EPA and other agencies have spent their entire careers working on so they feel very strongly about it.”

You can hear the entire conversation with Brady Dennis on our podcast, Trump on Earth.

Reporting by Julie Grant 

Find this report and others at the site of our partner, Allegheny Front. 

(Photo Credit: Tim Evanson/Flickr)