Earthjustice Asks Court to Protect Independent Science Advisors

Trump administration’s science attack prioritizes profits over public health


Neil Gormley, Earthjustice, (202) 797-5239

Keith Rushing, Earthjustice, (202) 797-5236 (o) (757) 897-2147 (c) 

Doctors and scientists filed a brief today in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals arguing that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is illegally excluding top experts from participating on its scientific committees, compromising the committees’ ability to ensure sound scientific decision making at the agency and putting public health and the environment at risk.

“The Trump administration is simply trying to payback its polluter cronies by gutting sound science that our health and environmental protections rely on,” said Earthjustice attorney Neil Gormley, who, along with the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic, is representing the doctors and scientists and health advocacy groups.

The groups and individuals challenging EPA’s policy are Physicians for Social Responsibility, National Hispanic Medical Association, International Society for Children’s Health and the Environment, Edward Avol, Robyn Wilson, and Joe Arvai.

The EPA policy that is the subject of the litigation claims that publicly funded academic scientists have a disqualifying conflict of interest, while allowing scientists paid by polluting industries to serve. The policy was issued by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt without any public process or consultation with the agency that oversees federal conflict-of-interest policies — the Office of Government Ethics.

Government-funded scientific research, according to Bruce Lanphear, president of the International Society for Children’s Health and the Environment, has strengthened the nation’s health and environmental safeguards.

“EPA-funded scientists who served on EPA advisory boards were instrumental in protecting Americans from lead poisoning, air pollution, arsenic and other toxic chemicals”, Lanphear said, adding: “This public health progress could be slowed or even reversed if EPA-funded scientists are excluded from serving on EPA advisory boards.”

The brief filed today asks the Court of Appeals to overturn a lower court’s decision — issued February 12, 2019 — that the scientists have no recourse because EPA’s decision is not subject to court review.

A recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the representation of academic experts on key EPA scientific advisory committees has dropped precipitously since Pruitt issued this policy, while the representation of scientists and consultants who work for polluting industries has tripled. At the same time, GAO found, EPA has failed to follow its own procedures for ensuring that new members comply with ethics requirements.

“As EPA continues its efforts to undermine science and roll back public health protections, it’s more important than ever to have independent doctors and scientists on these committees,” said Barbara Gottlieb, director of environment and health with Physicians for Social Responsibility.

“They need to be able to ask EPA hard questions and speak up for scientific integrity.”

Robyn Wilson, associate professor at Ohio State University’s School of Environment and Natural Resources discussed the EPA’s distortion of the meaning of objectivity. 

“Conflicts of interest are being construed in a twisted way by this administration,” said Wilson.

“Scott Pruitt’s directive prevents people with minimal or no conflicts and legitimate expertise from serving on essential advisory committees,” she added. “Meanwhile, scientists with arguably extensive conflicts of interest are being allowed to serve. If the goal is policy informed by the best science, it just makes no sense.” 

Ed Avol, a professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, said the best peer-reviewed science is necessary to make sound decisions on protecting the environment.

“The mission of the EPA is right in its name — Environmental Protection,” said Avol. “To do that effectively, the best peer-reviewed science needs to be discussed, debated, and integrated into agency considerations. Removing actively-funded researchers from the vibrant and interactive discussions needed between scientists and EPA staff censures the open exchange of ideas and prevents EPA from making important environmental decisions using all the credible facts.”

Jonathan Levy, Professor and Chair of the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, agrees. “EPA needs to base its decisions on the best available science to ensure adequate protection of vulnerable people across the country. Academic researchers with expertise on key topics are being disqualified precisely because of their expertise, and our health will suffer as a result.”

The decision to bar EPA-funded scientists is a threat to everyone’s health, said University of Michigan professor Joseph Arvai.

“Independent university scientists who receive public funding to support students and academic research are being prevented from serving the interests of the American people,” said Arvai. “Meanwhile, so-called ‘scientists’ on the payroll of America’s largest polluters are being welcomed by the lobbyist-controlled EPA with open arms. It’s a clear case of the fox in the henhouse, but with major consequences for the health of the American people and the environment they depend on.”

EPA's Federal Triangle Complex in Washington, DC
The U.S. EPA’s flag flies outside the Federal Triangle complex in Washington, D.C. (Aidan Wakely Mulroney / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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