BOSTON (CN) – Fighting a government directive that they say would stack environmental advisory committees with private interests, a group of scientists claim in a federal complaint Tuesday that the maneuver “is an attack on science itself.”
The Protect Democracy Project and the law firm Jenner & Block represent the challengers at issue: the Union of Concerned Scientists and University of Washington professor Lianne Sheppard.
Wasting little time, their complaint opens with the explanation that “anti-democratic governments, which thrive on obfuscating truth, seek to delegitimize and suppress scientists and other authoritative voices that offer accurate information that can be used to hold the government to account.”
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt precipitated the charge on Oct. 31 by issuing a directive that would cause a purge of scientists like plaintiff Sheppard from EPA federal advisory committees.
Unraveling a decades-old system wherein committees are staffed with “balanced, independent advice from eminent scientists and experts,” according to the complaint, Pruitt’s directive says any scientist or expert who is the recipient of an EPA grant can no longer serve as an adviser.
The challengers say the directive lacks any precedent or counterpart, and comes nowhere close to Pruitt’s stated goal of making advisory committee members more independent.
“The memorandum explaining the directive cites no evidence that the receipt of EPA grants causes any actual or potential conflict of interest,” the complaint states. “Indeed, no such evidence exists.”
Also unexplained, according to the complaint, is “why scientists and experts who receive similar grant funding from other sources — for example, scientists affiliated with private industry and local government — fall outside the directive’s scope.”
The complaint says this silence “lays bare [the directive’s] real function: to stack the deck against scientific integrity.”
As a member of the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, plaintiff Sheppard says the directive caused her to give up her role on a project funded by a $3 million EPA grant.
Approximately 90 members of a Science Network run by the co-plaintiff union hold EPA grants as well. The union says 80 of its Science Network members sit on EPA advisory committees today, and 15 were among the latest pool of 132 nominees to the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.
“The EPA has already used the directive to begin reshaping the EPA’s advisory committees in a meaningful way by replacing impartial, well-qualified scientists affiliated with academic and not-for-profit institutions,” the complaint states. “The effect is that private industry views will be over- weighted and the affected FACs [federal advisory committees] will no longer be fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented.”
Sheppard and the union view the directive as an existential threat, casting “legitimate, independent scientists … as just another interest group seeking to advance an agenda.”
“This unprecedented directive is an attempt to delegitimize and suppress the role of academic scientists advising the agency and, by extension, the results of their research,” the complaint states.
“The intent and effect of the ban is to disproportionately discount the viewpoints of academic scientists to the detriment of neutral, evidence-based science,” the complaint continues. “Accordingly, the directive is unlawful.”
The challengers are represented by Justin Florence of The Protect Democracy Project and Jenner & Block attorney Lindsay Harrison.
“The EPA hasn’t bothered to make the case for why EPA grants create a conflict of interest,” Joshua Goldman, senior legal analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “Mr. Pruitt simply can’t justify this decision, especially when there are no such restrictions on scientists who get funding from the industries the EPA oversees.”
According to the group’s website, the Union of Concerned Scientists was formed in 1969 by students and scientists from the Massachusetts Institute Technology who were concerned with how the government was using scientific research. Their first major action was to release a letter denouncing the government’s support of military research and calling for a shift toward environment and social research.
Last week, the union released a study that found scientific advisory boards across the U.S. government are experiencing a 20-year low. Membership in scientific panels has decreased by 14 percent from 2016, more than twice the rate during President Barack Obama’s transitional year. By contrast, the decline was only 1 percent during President George W. Bush’s first year, the study found.
The group’s lawsuit came weeks after a similar challenge led by Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Representatives for the EPA did not respond to an email seeking comment.