Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt appointed more than five dozen new scientific advisers to the agency Friday, a move that is likely to shift the EPA’s research objectives as well as the recommendations that form the basis for key regulations over the next few years.
Pruitt has placed 66 new experts on three different EPA scientific committees, many of whom hail from industry or state government, and espouse more conservative views than their predecessors. Two of the new chairs — Texas’s top toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, who will helm the Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), and consultant Louis Anthony “Tony” Cox, who will chair the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) — have harshly criticized the way the EPA has conducted science in the past.
Honeycutt has accused the EPA of “overstating” the risks associated with mercury, a neurotoxin, and of disregarding “good science which demonstrates a chemical is not as toxic as it thinks it is.” Cox wrote that the EPA’s methods for calculating the public health benefits of stricter national smog standards are “unreliable, logically unsound, and inappropriate for drawing causal inferences.”
Under a policy Pruitt instituted last week, scientists receiving EPA funding cannot serve as the agency’s advisers. Seven advisers stepped down rather than relinquish their grants, agency officials said, while two opted to forego the federal money in order to continue serving.
Clark University economics professor Robert Johnston, who had one year left to serve on the Scientific Advisory Board, said in a phone interview he did not want to give up his portion of a nearly $800,000 grant he and his colleagues share with researchers at Virginia Tech and the University of New Hampshire. The project, which has been underway for more than two years, seeks to evaluate how water quality is understood and valued by the public through a case study of river quality in New England.
“The research is too important,” Johnston said, adding that he is concerned that the litmus test now in place will bar some qualified scientists from helping advise the EPA. “Until recently people serving on the board were the top scientists in their field, and often these are often the people who were funded by federal agencies. So by systematically excluding those scientists, you have effectively knocked out the top scientists, most of them, in many fields.”
Johnston added that these panels are different from policymaking bodies, where a diversity of policy perspectives is critical.
“It’s supposed to be guiding on the science. Not providing policy advice, not offering our own opinions,” he said. “If the board becomes about something else, about people’s particular opinions about how they think policy should be made, that would really change what the board is about.”
Pruitt said the appointments to the Scientific Advisory Board and its clean air panel, along with the even-larger Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), would bring new perspectives to the agency. He told reporters last week that he was seeking to diversify the groups’ geographic representation, to include more experts from the Midwest and West.
“To ensure that EPA is receiving the best independent scientific advice, I am appointing highly-qualified experts and scientists to these important committees,” he said in a statement.
Several of the new appointees hail from industries that the EPA regulates, including the French oil giant Total, Phillips 66, the utility Southern Co., Dow Chemical and Procter & Gamble. One current executive from the American Chemistry Council industry group, Kimberly White, will join the SAB, while the ACC’s former senior toxicologist, Richard Becker, will serve on BOSC’s Chemical Safety for Sustainability Subcommittee.
ACC’s senior director for advocacy communications Scott Openshaw praised the appointment of White, Becker and others, saying Pruitt’s new directive will “help ensure EPA’s scientific review panels are well balanced with perspectives from qualified scientists of diverse backgrounds and board members … free of any disqualifying conflicts of interest.”
White’s “fresh perspective,” he added, “reinforced by her scientific background, will help stimulate robust discussion and debate about the matters brought before the panel, which will result in well-vetted advice and recommendations to the administrator.”
The 44-member SAB has two representatives from environmental groups: the Environmental Defense Fund and the ClimateWorks Foundation.
Reactions to the appointments split sharply between Republicans and industry officials who welcomed the shift, and environmentalists and academics who decried it.
Gretchen Goldman, research director for The Center for Science and Democracy, noted in an email that Pruitt had “nearly halved the number of university scientists and tripled the number of industry and consulting firm scientists” on the Scientific Advisory Board.
“With the gutting of key science advisory committees this week, the EPA has replaced independent scientists with air pollution conspiracy theorists and industry-tied individuals with direct conflicts of interest,” Goldman said. “What was previously a committee of scientific all-stars giving freely of their time to provide dispassionate science advice is now dominated by individuals who are less qualified and in some cases openly hostile to the agency’s mission.”
Frank O’Donnell, who heads the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, said that when it came to the clean air advisory panel, “Pruitt has deliberately excluded very qualified scientists from California and the Northeast in the name of regional ‘diversity,’ which he obviously believes is more important than scientific qualifications.”
But Senate Environment and Public Works Committee Chairman John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) praised the overhaul. He called the appointment of Cara Keslar, who serves as the monitoring section supervisor for the air quality division of Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality, as an “outstanding addition.”
“Her expertise and perspective will ensure that Wyoming and other Western states are part of the EPA’s decision making process,” Barrasso said.
John D. Graham, who worked to raise the bar for new federal regulations while heading the Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under George W. Bush, said in an email that he was “honored” to be tapped by Pruitt to serve on the Science Advisory Board, “as EPA is an accomplished agency.”
“I join SAB with no predispositions as to what our priorities will be,” said Graham, who now serves as dean of Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs. “I will look for guidance from the agency and veteran members of SAB.”