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Scott Pruitt’s Plot to Sabotage Science at the EPA

He's barred scientists who receive EPA grants from advising the agency, but sees no conflict of interest in appointing fossil-fuel representatives.

Win McNamee/Getty

Hundreds, if not thousands of expert scientists across the country—epidemiologists, ecologists, toxicologists, and climate scientists—are no longer allowed to provide advice to the Environmental Protection Agency. In an unprecedented move on Wednesday, Administrator Scott Pruitt issued new rules prohibiting recipients of EPA grant funding from serving on its scientific advisory committees—the bodies that make sure regulations to protect public health are based on sound science. The EPA is one of the largest funders of scientific researchers in the country, so it’s hard to know exactly how many scientists Pruitt has deemed conflicted. But there are a lot.

Pruitt’s rationale is that committee members “should avoid financial entanglements with EPA to the greatest extent possible,” and that grant-funded scientists “can create an appearance or reality of potential interference with their ability to objectively serve.” At a press conference announcing the new rules, Pruitt said, “Whatever science comes out of EPA shouldn’t be political science. From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the agency.”

But committee members won’t be financially independent at all. The list of expected appointees to the Science Advisory Board (SAB), chosen specifically by Pruitt, includes multiple people who work at places that receive EPA grant money. SAB members retain their full-time jobs while they serve, which thus constitutes a conflict of interest for these advisors.

The new head of SAB will be Michael Honeycutt, a toxicologist at the Texas Commission on Environment Quality. TCEQ receives $48.5 million each year from the federal government, much of it from the EPA. Pruitt also appointed Bob Blanz, the chief technical officer at the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality, an agency that recently received $650,000 from EPA for water quality programs. A leaked document of SAB appointees provided to the New Republic and other outlets lists Donald van der Vaart from the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, an agency that Vox reporter Umair Irfan notes has received at least five EPA grants this year. The document also includes James Boylan, from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, to be named to EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee. Boylan’s workplace gets one-third of its funding from the EPA.

Irfan noted this hypocrisy on Twitter. “[Pruitt] said yesterday: ‘You will either have to choose the grant or service, but not both,’” he wrote. “Will EPA hold advisers it selects from state agencies to the same standards it holds scientists from academia?” The answer, quite simply, is no: Pruitt’s directive specifically says that “state, tribal, or local government recipients of grants” can receive funding and serve on the scientific advisory committees. The directive does not, however, explain why. Why is a grant to a scientist considered a conflict of interest, but a grant to a government agency employee isn’t? Reporters weren’t given the chance to ask as much at Pruitt’s press conference on Wednesday, as the secretive administrator refused to take questions. And the EPA press office didn’t reply to an email Thursday morning.

I have further questions yet: Does the EPA have any documented proof that EPA-grant funded scientists have made politically motivated decisions that were not in line with peer-reviewed science? And if Pruitt believes that an EPA grant makes a scientist biased toward regulation, then why do several SAB appointees come from the fossil fuel and chemical industries, which are directly regulated by EPA? Surely this is a much greater “financial entanglement”?

Pruitt’s faulty logic—or lack of it entirely—hasn’t gone unnoticed. Former Science Advisory Board member Joe Arvai, whose six-year term expired in late September, was bewildered. “Not only is Mr. Pruitt a hypocrite, he’s a coward,” said Arvai, who is currently the director of the Erb Institute at the University of Michigan. “Rather than having the guts to say he doesn’t care about what the country’s leading scientists have to say, he’s hiding behind some patently phony conflict-of-interest rhetoric.” As Arvai said, “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist” to understand what Pruitt, who has deep and enduring ties to the fossil fuel industry, is up to: stacking advisory boards with people who he knows will support his deregulatory agenda. Pruitt can’t weaken air pollution regulations without the support of scientists who believe air pollution isn’t so bad for human health, and he can’t weaken rules to halt global warming without advisors who question whether climate change is even happening. Pruitt might be Trump’s most secretive cabinet member, but his motives here are transparently corrupt.