The research of an environmental regulator is unlikely to win public trust if it relies on money from industrial lobby groups.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hasn't violated any laws by accepting US$2 million from a chemical-industry lobby group to help it conduct toxicology research. But it is crossing a line that a regulator in the world's wealthiest nation should not have to.
As reported on page 6, environmental groups claim that accepting the funds represents a clear conflict of interest for the EPA, which is tasked with regulating companies that are members of the American Chemistry Council, the lobby group in question.
The study under scrutiny will examine the pathways by which young children are exposed to pesticides and household chemicals. The decision to accept the money is driven, EPA officials say, by a desire to conduct as comprehensive a study as possible, given constraints on the agency's research budget, which has remained essentially constant for almost a decade and is expected to dip slightly this year. The lobby group's cash will allow EPA scientists to analyse samples for the presence of potentially toxic compounds that they would otherwise have to leave out of the study. The agreement between the EPA and the chemistry council attaches no constraints, they add.
This is not a unique case: the EPA has struck agreements with dozens of companies to study a vast range of environmental problems over the past decade. But $2 million is one of the largest sums ever accepted by the agency from an outside source and, in this case, the source has a direct interest in the outcome. Even if the wording of the agreement protects the research from any direct interference, it is hard for officials to argue that it doesn't give the appearance of compromising the agency's independence as a regulator.
Administrators at the agency may have little choice but to make deals with industry in order to move essential research forward, but there are ways to limit the appearance of impropriety. For example, industry could agree to give to a general research fund, rather than picking and choosing specific projects to support. Or it could partner universities or environmental groups on projects that all parties agree are important. Such moves would allay some of the concerns of environmentalists, and allow industry groups to support the science that they believe will ultimately lead to better regulation.
But above all, it is essential — not only for trust but also for adequate regulation — that the EPA's science budget be increased. The agency's mission requires it constantly to address questions of exposure and toxicity that are politically controversial, scientifically complex and poorly understood. It has been apparent for years that its research budget of about half-a-billion dollars a year is inadequate. Congress must give the cash-strapped agency the resources it needs to properly implement the plethora of mandates that it is meant to enforce. This idea is not so radical — it is supported by industry and environmental groups alike.
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Bad funding. Nature 432, 1 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/432001b