Scientists Alarmed By Pruitt's Changes To EPA Advisory Boards

Nov 4, 2017
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, has announced new rules that would bar researchers who've received EPA grants from serving on the agency's key advisory boards. The agency has been a major funder of environmental research. The new measure would effectively shut out many academic researchers from those boards, and that's alarmed many scientists. Professor Peter Thorne is a toxicologist from the University of Iowa, and he was chair of the Science Advisory Board. He's been replaced. Professor Thorne joins us from the studios of WSUI in Iowa City.

Professor, thanks very much for being with us.

PETER THORNE: Oh, it's my pleasure.

SIMON: Professor, does Administrator Pruitt make a fair point? He said that personnel on three of the key advisory committees had accepted about $77 million in EPA grants over the last three years. Doesn't that give them a direct financial stake in the advice they give?

THORNE: The way that federal grants are issued is highly competitive. It's been a tried and true system that has worked very well. These are the top scholars in the country in the issues of environmental quality that the EPA faces. And therefore, having them excluded from the dialogue and from providing advice to the agency is detrimental to the process and ultimately to the health of the American public.

SIMON: But even recognizing their expertise, should they have a financial stake in the advice they give?

THORNE: The action to remove the scientists with EPA funding, I think, fundamentally excludes those with the most extensive knowledge. And it's purportedly done in the name of ethics, but it only applies to independent academic scientists and not to industry representatives who I think, arguably, have a real conflict of interest in terms of their employment.

SIMON: Administrator Pruitt says that researchers can certainly continue to advise the EPA, but they'd have to end their grant. He said - I think the quote was they can't do both. What do you think about that?

THORNE: Well, that's not a very realistic scenario because these grants are teams of scientists, which include doctoral researchers, postdocs, students of all sorts. And so that would be just cutting off all these people at the knees. If Mr. Pruitt wants to form a regulated industry advisory board comprised of representatives from petroleum, coal, chemical, waste management - whatever industries he's interested in - he can certainly do that. But I don't think he should expect unbiased evaluation of the science and policy implications from such a board.

SIMON: The new rules, I gather, are intended to promote what they call geographic diversity and fresh perspectives to the EPA. Did you find that was a problem?

THORNE: No, we've had geographic diversity. The Science Advisory Board staff has done an outstanding job over the years of getting broad representation on the board to ensure that all the science needs that the board has are met as well as people from state governments geographically distributed across the U.S. - also looking for diversity in terms of women and underrepresented minority representation on the boards. So I think they've really done a great job over the years, and there was no lack of geographic diversity on the board.

SIMON: You served on the Science Advisory Board for six years. Is your relationship with the EPA, as far as you're concerned, at an end?

THORNE: There are outstanding scientists at EPA. The people there work hard, and they're wonderful people. And so in no way do I hold anything - any negative thoughts about them. I may disagree with some of the directions that Administrator Pruitt has taken the EPA in since his appointment. But directors come, and directors go. And yet the staff who really are doing that work day in and day out remain. And I just have great esteem for them.

SIMON: Peter Thorne, who's a professor of occupational and environmental health at the University of Iowa, formerly chair of the EPA Science Advisory Board, thanks so much for being with us.

THORNE: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.