Tampering with scientific advisory boards destroys public trust

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has moved to significantly change the makeup of the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors, which advises EPA’s prime scientific arm.
Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has moved to significantly change the makeup of the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors, which advises EPA’s prime scientific arm. AP

Officials in the Environmental Protection Agency have begun tampering with the agency’s primary scientific advisory board, the Board of Scientific Counselors. As The News & Observer reported, after last week’s removal of board leaders, EPA leadership will likely either eliminate the BOSC entirely or stack it with members tied to EPA-regulated industries.

This is now happening on other EPA advisory committees and the scientific advisory boards of other federal agencies. Re-staffing federal scientific advisory boards using political tests for membership is not a standard part of presidential administrative turnover. This has not occurred under any previous administration, Republican or Democrat.

As a Triangle resident, UNC professor and a BOSC member, I want to offer some insight into why this is a very bad idea and will fail to accomplish the Trump administration’s goals.

Representatives of regulated industries play an important part in influencing policy decisions. However, this does not mean they should be arbiters of scientific truth. By attempting to bias the scientific review process of federal agencies, these actions will only impinge their scientific credibility.

On the surface, overhauling BOSC membership aligns with administration efforts to create “political balance” in federal decision making. Unfortunately, instead of actually changing agency priorities, this effort only reveals a profound misunderstanding of what advisory boards like the BOSC actually do. It also reveals a failure to distinguish between the regulatory and scientific missions of the EPA.

First, the BOSC does not make regulations. We do not set standards or make political decisions. Instead, we sit through long, open-door meetings and author detailed reports with one mission: advise the EPA to improve its research mission.

How does the EPA select BOSC members? We volunteer. BOSC members must commit to devoting extensive time and energy to public service over three year terms.

BOSC members hail from both the public and private sectors, including universities, local and state governments, nonprofits and private businesses. Members include economists, chemical engineers, computer scientists and physicians.

I do not know the politics of my fellow board members. I imagine they are as diverse as the fields and organizations they work in. We were appointed based on our scientific qualifications, not our political or industrial affiliations. Only one rule has excluded qualified scientists: Conflicts of interest among board members are strictly prohibited.

Decisions about regulations are different than decisions about science. Should mining companies have input into how and when we regulate arsenic in drinking water? Absolutely. Should mining companies be able to determine how the EPA calculates the arsenic levels that give people headaches or convulsions? No.

The scientific integrity of nonpartisan federal research programs should not be undermined by entities with skin in the game. Preventing conflicts of interest from interfering with the scientific process of discovery confines partisanship to the decisions made by public officials.

Those who disagree with EPA research or enforcement of regulations should fight to change the direction of federal agencies through standard political channels. This is why our government is led by public officials.

Political tests to determine who can advise the research work of federal agencies will only serve to corrupt federal scientific research. Explicit politicization will weaken these committees.

Todd BenDor, Ph.D., is an associate professor of city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill.