Scientists Decrying Academic Purge by Trump Lose Suit

BOSTON (CN) – A new EPA policy that bars federal grant recipients from serving on advisory committees survived a lawsuit Wednesday from scientists who accused the Trump administration of trying “to stack the deck against scientific integrity.” 

Lianne Sheppard, a professor at the University of Washington, brought the challenge last year with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Rejecting the EPA’s claim that its policy change was meant reduce conflicts of interest, Sheppard says she had to give up her role on a project funded by a $3 million EPA grant so that she continue serving on the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee.

U.S. District Judge Dennis Saylor agreed Wednesday that Sheppard has standing but that the challenge nevertheless fails to state a claim.

“This case involves a fairly narrow set of issues: in substance, whether a specific EPA conflict-of-interest directive violates federal law, and whether plaintiffs are the proper parties to assert such claims,” he wrote.

Saylor wrote later that established federal law shows “the challenged directive is not subject to judicial reversal, and accordingly the complaint will be dismissed.”

Genna Reed, who belongs to the plaintiff Union of Concerned Scientists, noted that the group is considering its options for appeal.

“This policy can’t be justified on scientific or ethical grounds,” Reed said in a statement. “It’s clearly meant to achieve political ends, not help agencies get the best advice. And it misses the point entirely on the function of EPA research grants, which are meant to advance science for the public good, not benefit the agency itself. It violates the spirit of the laws that establish federal advisory committees, because it could arbitrarily exclude the top experts in their fields from public service.”

Representatives for the EPA did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Professor Sheppard was one of approximately 90 members of a Science Network run by the Union of Concerned Scientists who hold EPA grants. 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.

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.

Shortly before they filed suit in Massachusetts in 2018, 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.

Saylor’s ruling follows a February decision against a similar suit filed in Washington by the Physicians for Social Responsibility. 

Yet another challenge led by the Natural Resources Defense Council was tossed last week in New York by U.S. District Judge William Pauley. 

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