Scientists sue EPA and Pruitt over advisory board purge

A consortium of scientists and constitutional law experts has come together to sue the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and its Administrator, Scott Pruitt. The claim? Pruitt and the EPA are pushing out academic advisors and replacing them with industry representatives.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt | Miles O'Brien Productions
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr.

This is just the latest twist in the ongoing EPA advisory board debacle. Like most government agencies, the EPA consults with many advisory boards, which comprise of academics, industry reps, and various interest groups. They have historically acted independently to provide holistic advice… but that is all changing.

It all began in May 2017, when several members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors were notified that their terms would not be renewed. EPA officials said that a general shakeup was needed as the Administrations changed, but advisors and some outside observers were worried: was this the start of a purge of academic scientists?

WATCH: Miles reports on the Board of Scientific Counselors firings.

On October 31, 2017, Pruitt issued a directive that the EPA will bar advisory board members from receiving EPA research grants.

“Whatever science comes out of EPA, shouldn’t be political science,” Pruitt said in a press release. “From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the Agency.”

Anticipating this move, the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) released a statement the day before lambasting Pruitt.

“This argument fundamentally misrepresents the role of a science advisory committee. Members don’t sit around having discussions about politics or policy,” wrote Michael Halpern, Deputy Director of UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy.

It is strange to consider academic advisors receiving grant money from the EPA to be a conflict of interest, maintained Halpern.

“EPA grants are given to scientists to further scientific understanding of a particular research topic. Science advisory boards give advice on the use of science in EPA decisions. These are often entirely different realms. If a scientist received a grant to study multi-pollutant interactions and their health impacts, does that mean they would be incentivized to say that EPA was or wasn’t following the science on the drinking water impacts of fracking?”

Nevertheless, Pruitt and his directive stood fast. So, UCS partnered with Protect Democracy to sue the EPA and Pruitt. Protect Democracy is a nonpartisan nonprofit of former White House and Administration lawyers with a mission to “prevent our democracy from declining into a more authoritarian form of government.”

Together, they filed a complaint with U.S. District Court of Massachusetts contending that Pruitt and the EPA had hurt UCS members that wanted to hold advisory board positions but now couldn’t because they were also on EPA grants.

Joining the plaintiff organizations was also a single individual: Elizabeth Anne “Lianne” Sheppard. As an established biostatistician with the University of Washington, Sheppard has lent her expertise as a member of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC).

Biostatistician Dr. Lianne Sheppard | Miles O'Brien Productions
Biostatistician Dr. Lianne Sheppard. Credit: University of Washington.

During the new Administration, Sheppard has been critical of the EPA’s seemingly pro-industry decisions. Sheppard told Bloomberg Businessweek in July that she believed the EPA had obfuscated data and bent over backwards to give Monsanto the benefit of the doubt in an investigation of reports that its pesticide Roundup might cause cancer.

Then came the directive, and Sheppard, a professional researcher scientist, had to make a choice.

“Before the Directive was issued, Dr. Sheppard served on the CASAC and simultaneously held an EPA grant,” reads the filed complaint. “As a result of the Directive, she was forced to give up her role as Co-Investigator on an EPA grant awarding approximately $3 million for research on health effects of air pollution.”

“Dr. Sheppard would like to be considered for EPA research grant funding in the future and to continue serving on the CASAC,” continues the complaint. “She views her participation on an EPA FAC [Federal Advisory Committee] as an important form of public service.”

The scientists we’ve met often speak of wanting to change the world and working to improve humanity, but they are also a cautious, apolitical bunch. Advising on federal committees used to be one of the most political things scientists would do.

But then came a climate change-denying President Trump and an equivocating Administrator Pruitt. Scientists got worried.

At the beginning of President Trump’s tenure, before Pruitt was even brought on, some climate scientists were vocal in their concern that the new EPA leadership would try to restrict access to or entirely destroy climate data. There were hackathon-style events around the country to duplicate and store this government-funded science data.

WATCH: Miles meets scientists that are safeguarding government climate data.

Under Pruitt, climate data still remains accessible to researchers and the public. However, the EPA has been scrubbing its websites and reports of climate change wording–an unnerving trend.

The Trump Administration has also rolled back 29 environmental regulations since its term began.

All of this has mobilized scientists and science-advocates en masse, who staged large March for Science protests on Earth Day in April. Never before have scientists become so visibly and vocally engaged with politics.

WATCH: Miles talks to scientists who are leading protests and running for office.

This pushback from the scientific community has largely fallen on deaf ears. Pruitt continues to be one of, if not the most successful implementers of policy in the Trump Administration.

So far, the only measurable success by critics has come in court, the biggest win being a D.C. appeals court upholding methane monitoring requirements that Pruitt tried to loosen.

So, the UCS and Sheppard have chosen to challenge Pruitt’s academic purge in court. Perhaps, considering he is a former Attorney General of Oklahoma, Pruitt will respond more to lawsuits than protests.

Banner image credit: Wikimedia.

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