On January 20th, 2009, scientists (and anyone who values science) in the USA breathed a collective sigh of relief. After eight years of President George W. Bush, a Democratic president – Barack Obama – was taking over and science once again took its rightful place in American society as a force for good and an asset to policy making. It’s not that corporate America didn’t fight them tooth and nail to stop protections for our air, earth, water, food, and medicine. They did. But they at least had a champion in the White House who valued science again.
Then came Trump.
Donald Trump quickly installed Scott Pruitt at the helm of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt was a man who maligned the EPA throughout his career as an impediment to the massive accumulation of corporate and personal wealth that all corporatists dream about. He even sued the EPA. Not once. Not twice. Not [fill in the blanks between 3 and 13]. He sued the EPA FOURTEEN TIMES!
Now he runs the joint.
Last month in a not-widely reported move, Pruitt issued a new directive that prevents any person who works for a college or university and who receives grant funding from the EPA from serving on three important advisory boards:
- Scientific Advisory Board, a panel of approximately 45 scientists, examines key scientific issues related to EPA regulations, and produces reports telling EPA what the current state of the science is.
- The Board of Scientific Counselors, with an executive committee of about 20 people, works more intimately with agency scientists, advising the agency’s Office of Research and Development on its research programs.
- The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee which provides technical guidance specifically related to air pollution standards, such as questions about the potential health effects of different pollution levels.
[Descriptions courtesy of ScienceMag.org]
Why did he do this? The reason he is giving is that it ensures that these advisory boards “are independent and free from any real, apparent, or potential interference with their ability to objectively serve as a committee member.” Here are his specific justifications:
The directive focuses on the importance of the following areas pertaining to EPA FACs:
- Strengthen Member Independence: Members shall be independent from EPA, which shall include a requirement that no member of an EPA federal advisory committee be currently in receipt of EPA grants, either as principal investigator or co-investigator, or in a position that otherwise would reap substantial direct benefit from an EPA grant. This principle shall not apply to state, tribal or local government agency recipients of EPA grants.
- Increase State, Tribal and Local Government Participation: In the spirit of cooperative federalism and recognition of the unique experience of state, tribal and local government officials, committee balance should reflect prominent participation from state, tribal and local governments. Such participation should be appropriate for the committee’s purpose and function.
- Enhance Geographic Diversity: Given the range of environmental and public health considerations across the country, membership should be balanced with individuals from different states and EPA regions. Emphasis should be given to individuals from historically unrepresented or underrepresented states and regions.
- Promote Fresh Perspectives: To encourage and promote the inclusion of new candidates with fresh perspectives and to avoid prolonged and continuous service, membership should be rotated regularly.
The presumption here is that these scientists are somehow personally and financially benefiting from the grant funding. The reality, of course, is that the funding pays for salaries, supplies, equipment, and other expenses needed to do science, not to fatten the wallets of the scientists themselves.
What this directive does NOT do is prevent industry scientists from continuing to serve on the advisory commissions, scientists who work for corporations that DO stand to directly benefit if the EPA loosens protections allowing them to pollute more or avoid other protections that reduce their corporate profits. It’s not a far stretch to imagine corporate scientific advisers being highly incentivized to advise in ways that help their employers.
Here’s how chief scientist for Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. and former EPA Science Advisory Board member Steven Hamburg, put it:
Pruitt’s actions today are the height of hypocrisy. He is trying to gaslight Americans into believing that industry-funded scientists can offer EPA impartial advice, while those with EPA research grants are biased.
So, yeah, things sucked bad under George W. Bush and his administration. But, when it comes to handing over the keys to the kingdom to corporate America, Donald Trump and HIS administration are taking things to a new and terrifying level.
Oh, one more thing: When Scott Pruitt announced his decision, he couched it in biblical terms. I’m not kidding:
“We want to ensure that there’s integrity in the process and that the scientists that are advising us are doing so without any type of appearance of conflict of interest,” EPA head Scott Pruitt said at a press conference announcing the directive.
Pruitt used a story from the Book of Joshua to help explain the new policy.
On the journey to the promised land, “Joshua says to the people of Israel: choose this day whom you are going to serve,” Pruitt said. “This is sort of like the Joshua principle — that as it relates to grants from this agency, you are going to have to choose either service on the committee to provide counsel to us in an independent fashion or chose the grant. But you can’t do both. That’s the fair and great thing to do.”