WASHINGTON (CN) – Advisory committees for the Environmental Protection Agency have been stripped of academic scientists while stakeholders from industries the agency regulates have filled out those spots, in a shift that scientists warned Tuesday could upend oversight of environmental matters in favor of profit-driven motives.
The flow of scientists ousted from advisory committees – bodies which provide impartial guidance on public health policies spearheaded by the EPA – has been ongoing since 2017.
The shift from science to stakeholder focus began after former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt remade the advisory panels in 2017 following a White House executive order directing the “streamlining” of all federal programs.
The order aligned with Pruitt’s own “back-to-basics” deregulatory agenda that has continued under current Administrator Andrew Wheeler, who assumed the role after Pruitt resigned amid a flurry of ethics investigations last July.
Under Wheeler, the EPA eliminated the Office of the Science Advisor, which provided critical data on environmental standards. He also disbanded the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, which studied the impact of particulate matter in the air. Most of that committee’s members were university researchers.
The number of scientists on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board has plummeted 27% since 2017, according to a report published Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office. The Board of Science Counselors – a body which has informed EPA policy since 1962 – saw scientist membership plummet 45%.
The GAO report also found the EPA failed to follow committee member recommendation protocols by skipping thorough review in favor of private in-person or one-off briefings, a claim the EPA called “incorrect” Tuesday while calling for the finding’s removal from the report.
Now, following President Donald Trump’s June executive order directing federal agencies to audit federal advisory boards and shed at least a third of the committees by September, physicians, scientists and watchdogs told members of a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee Tuesday their concerns about transparency, impartiality and ethical compliance at the EPA are significant.
Thomas Burke, a physician and former science adviser to the EPA from 2017 to 2018, studied cancer risks related to exposure to herbicides like Roundup and provided guidance on contaminated drinking water, harmful algal blooms, health risks from industrial chemical discharges and the impact of fracking on drinking water.
“EPA science is in trouble. In the past two years, I’ve witnessed a profound shift in priorities of the agency. The fundamental mission of protecting health in the environment has given way to a focus on deregulation,” Burke told the panel. “How else can you explain the rollbacks we have seen that may result in thousands [more] deaths and illnesses each year?”
The shift makes assessing health risks more difficult because it interferes with the peer-review process and disrupts internal and external research, he said.
“Those on the payroll of industry sitting on the committee should be precluded from membership in the same way grant recipients are now precluded from participating on advisory committees based on conflict of interest,” Burke said, referencing another controversial directive the Trump administration rolled out in 2017.
J. Alfredo Gomez, director of natural resources and environment at the GAO, detailed some of the findings in Tuesday’s report. Beyond decreased scientific membership, the administrative process by which panelists are appointed to boards also raised questions.
Appointees’ financial and ethical disclosure forms were often incomplete or unsigned, Gomez said, noting that in one instance, 17 of 74 documents reviewed lacked signatures.
“This causes a lack of assurance that EPA did a review or determined whether the person was free of conflicts,” Gomez said.
Republicans on the committee like South Carolina Representative Ralph Norman questioned the balance of the advisory boards: eight years ago, 80% of members on the Science Advisory Board were academic scientists, he said.
“If 80% of the board were members of industry, we’d point to a pretty big problem. I know academics are world leaders but wouldn’t it be beneficial to have different perspectives?” Norman said.
Burke explained what his years as a scientist, regulator and physician have taught him about a balance that skews away from science.
“When industry folks present their science, it very rarely comes down on the side of protecting public health or pointing out a hazard. Rather, it pushes back on public health measures or levels the standards you’re setting. It’s an interest of the industry to protect their industry. That’s a source of bias. We have to control that,” he said.
The EPA’s Office of the Inspector General will release a final report on advisory committee appointments soon, but a date has not yet been set.
When reached for comment Tuesday, EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said the agency has doubled its career ethics attorney staff under Trump to ensure compliance with financial disclosures.
“Given the range of environmental and public health considerations across the country, EPA is proud of the fact that its chartered scientific advisory committees have the highest participation of state, local and tribal experts than at any point in the agency’s history,” Abboud said.