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Scott Pruitt suggests he will restrict scientists who get EPA grants from advising the agency

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt  at the Concordia Summit in New York last month. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
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Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt hinted Tuesday at plans to rid the agency’s scientific advisory boards of researchers who get EPA grants, arguing that the current structure raises questions about their independence.

“What’s most important at the agency is to have scientific advisers that are objective, independent-minded, providing transparent recommendations,” Pruitt told an audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation. “If we have individuals who are on those boards, sometimes receiving money from the agency … that to me causes questions on the independence and the veracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way.”

Pruitt promised to “fix that” in a directive he plans to issue next week. It remained unclear Tuesday what such a directive would say. The EPA declined further comment.

The administrator’s remarks drew rapid criticism from scientific and environmental groups, who called the move a veiled attempt to “purge” scientists from advisory boards in favor of more industry representatives.

“Pruitt’s purge has a single goal: get rid of scientists who tell us the facts about threats to our environment and health,” Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “There’s a reason he won’t apply the same limits to scientists funded by corporate polluters. Now the only scientists on Pruitt’s good list will be those with funding from polluters supporting Trump’s agenda to make America toxic again.”

Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a blog post that if Pruitt issues the kind of directive he promised, he “would be willfully setting himself up to fail at the job of protecting public health and the environment.”

While experts from chemical, oil and gas, and other industries have traditionally served on these EPA boards, industry groups have complained that it can be difficult for them to get adequate representation.

Halpern said industry membership on the agency’s Science Advisory Board is fine, as long as individuals are evaluated for their scientific expertise and their ability to remain objective. But he called Pruitt’s complaints about scientists who receive EPA grants a double standard.

“So let’s recap: According to some, scientists who receive money from oil and chemical companies are perfectly qualified to provide the EPA with independent science advice, while those who receive federal grants are not,” he wrote. “It’s a fundamental misrepresentation of how conflicts of interest work.”

The EPA in recent months has solicited candidates for positions on its influential Science Advisory Board. The panel had 47 members as of last month before terms for 15 expired. A list of 132 possible candidates for board positions, published by the agency, included numerous people who have questioned mainstream research about the causes and severity of climate change.

One candidate has stated that more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will “confer great benefits upon future inhabitants of the globe” by driving plant growth. Another has faulted the climate change debate, saying “scare tactics and junk science are used to secure lucrative government contracts.” Several others have challenged the EPA’s own science on the warming of the planet in court.

Earlier this year, the EPA gave notice to dozens of scientists on a separate advisory panel that their positions would not be renewed for another term, leading critics to charge that the administration was politicizing the agency and its science.

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