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Is science being taken out of environmental protection?

In 1963, dying of breast cancer and wearing a wig to cover the effects of radiation treatments, Rachel Carson appeared before a congressional committee to defend her indictment of pesticides. She had rattled the chemical industry with Silent Spring, which urged caution at a time when Americans were buying dangerous products that the scientific community had itself made possible. Industry representatives mounted a vigorous campaign to discredit the scientific perspective she offered, some calling her work a hoax.

Attacks on science by industry—including attacks by scientists paid by industry, as was the case with Silent Spring—are common in the world of environmental regulation. Just as Silent Spring ushered in the modern environmental movement, ironically so did it also provoke this tactic. Fortunately, however, our government has until recently recognized the need for strong science as a cornerstone of modern environmental policy and has incorporated scientific perspectives into the heart of its decision-making. In the words of the Executive Order that established the EPA in 1970, one of the key functions of the new agency was “the conduct of research on the adverse effects of pollution and on methods and equipment for controlling it.”

A good example of this recognition is the EPA’s 47-member Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), established in 1978 at the direction of Congress. The SAB reviews the quality and relevance of scientific research and data when the EPA is creating environmental regulations. EPA ethics officials screen its members—mostly leading academics—for conflicts of interest to ensure they are independent and not tied to special interests. EPA’s current SAB website notes that “a key priority for EPA is to base Agency actions on sound scientific data.”

The EPA often requests the SAB to independently peer review major reports that will undergird future regulations. In 2016, for example, the SAB reviewed a major report concerning the impact on the nation’s drinking water of hydraulic fracturing, a lucrative and controversial method of extracting natural gas. The review resulted in changes to the final report that were met with criticism from the oil and gas industry.

The headquarters of the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Washington, D.C. Photographed on en:August 12, en:2006 by user Coolcaesar. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Things are different today. The President’s current budget proposal would cut SAB funding by 84 percent. The EPA Administrator, Scott Pruitt, has dragged his feet in appointing a new SAB Chair to fill a term that ends in September. The selection process, which in the past has been transparent, with public input, and a multi-month effort, has just begun. Will it be a rush job? Will it be transparent? What is the relationship of this foot-dragging to Pruitt’s connection with oil and gas interests in Oklahoma, his home state? And why is Pruitt not encouraging renewed terms for members of the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) who have distinguished themselves by their service? According to Pruitt’s spokesman, the objective is to broaden the Board to include people who understand the impact of environmental regulations on the regulated community. This is not how Ken Kimmel, the President of the Union of Concerned Scientists, sees it. To him, Pruitt’s signal to the BOSC is “part of a multifaceted effort to get science out of the way of the deregulation agenda.”

It appears that congressional House Republicans are proving Kimmel right. They passed the EPA Science Advisory Board Review Act in March 2017 on a straight party line vote: 229 to 193. The bill ensures that industry representatives will have strong voices, strong enough perhaps to drown out the independent scientists currently on the Board. The bill eases conflict of interest rules, blocks academic researchers, and burdens the SAB with requirements that deter scientists lacking industrial financial support. As Eddie Bernice Johnson, ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, put it, “This bill is a transparent attempt to slow down the regulatory process and stack science review boards with industry representatives. The result would be. . .worse science at EPA and less public health protection for American citizens.” Which brings us back to hydrofracking. How would a SAB reimagined in a new Science Advisory Board Review Act, and reconstituted by industry-friendly Scott Pruitt, have come out in its review of the hydrofracking study?

Voices from industry are important. They are rightly given ample platforms throughout the regulatory process. Indeed, some of the most robust and voluminous comments come from representatives from industries such as the American Petroleum Institute, the Chemical Manufacturers Association, or Exxon Mobil. Such institutions also have outsized lobbying voices, some of which reach into the legislative process and influence the drafting of laws under consideration by government officials.

Science needs voices too. The Science Advisory Board and the Board of Scientific Counselors have been among them for years but now are under attack. Our highest levels of government need to protect the role of strong science as EPA staff labor to protect public health and the natural world.

Featured image credit: “Air Pollution” by Pexels. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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