The Real Problem with EPA Advisory Boards and how Administrator Pruitt Could Fix It

Read the full story at the Climate Law Blog.

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt was again in the headlines last week after suggesting that scientists receiving agency funding may lack “independence and objectivity.” Speaking at an event hosted by the Heritage Foundation on October 16, Administrator Pruitt vowed to “fix” what he sees as the problem of such scientists serving on the agency’s advisory boards, so as to ensure “the veracity . . . [of] the scientific advice we’re getting.” Precisely what this fix will involve remains to be seen, but many have speculated that Pruitt may seek to change the composition of EPA advisory boards, to replace agency-funded scientists with industry representatives. That is, however, unlikely to improve the quality of scientific advice provided by the boards.

Contrary to Administrator Pruitt’s suggestion, EPA-funded scientists are not inherently biased, such that they should be prevented from serving on advisory boards. The same is, of course, true of industry-funded scientists. The mere fact that a scientist receives funding from industry does not necessarily mean that he/she will automatically oppose environmental regulation or otherwise make him/her biased. It does increase the potential for such outcomes, however. Numerous studies have documented a so-called “funding effect,” whereby industry-sponsored scientists are more likely to reach conclusions that align with the sponsor’s commercial interests, likely due to unconscious bias. Unfortunately, however, it is often impossible to tell whether a scientist may be affected by such bias as most do not disclose their funding sources (unless required to do so, for example, by a scientific journal publishing their work). Even where a scientist is appointed to serve on an EPA advisory board, the public may have no idea whether he/she is funded by industry.

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