The US environment agency should not ban researchers it funds from its advisory boards.
Scott Pruitt, administrator of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), levelled a damning accusation against scientists on 31 October. In the interests of restoring scientific “integrity”, Pruitt signed a directive stating that the EPA would no longer allow researchers with active grants from the agency to serve on the EPA’s scientific advisory boards. By his tally, an unspecified number of scientists in voluntary positions on those boards had received US$77 million in EPA grants over the past three years — more than enough, Pruitt declared, to raise questions about their ability to provide independent scientific advice.
It was a cynical move — and entirely unnecessary. After all, it is ultimately up to Pruitt and his team to make the appointments to the boards, which advise the agency on everything from basic research programmes to contentious regulatory decisions. If Pruitt wanted to increase the geographical diversity, or include more people from local, state and tribal agencies, as claimed, he could have done so without raising a fuss. Instead, he opted for a public proclamation that singles out active academic scientists as a unique source of bias. He is wrong, on multiple counts.
Scientific enquiry requires money. That’s a fact of life. But receiving a research grant is very different from being on the payroll of an institution, advocacy group or company. Those are all very real conflicts of interest that were ignored in Pruitt’s directive.
Moreover, winning competitive research grants does not imply fealty to the granting institution. What drives EPA-funded researchers above all is the desire to deliver a public good: discovery and understanding.
Of course, scientific conflicts of interest do exist. So there are established procedures that require scientists to excuse themselves when their own work is under consideration by the boards. These same procedures apply to industry scientists — who are also rightfully represented on the advisory boards — when deliberations involve issues that could affect their companies’ bottom lines.
What Pruitt either fails to understand, or has chosen to ignore, is that his advisory boards are designed to focus on science, not policy. Understanding the latest research requires perspectives from the leading scientists. And when it comes to environmental and human-health issues, it is only to be expected that many of those people will have research grants from the EPA.
In the end, Pruitt’s directive seems crafted to incite US President Donald Trump’s political base, and it’s yet another example of researchers being dragged into the political and cultural wars rending the country.
Happily, it is harder to argue with data. This might explain why the first volume of a comprehensive — and congressionally mandated — assessment of climate science released on 3 November (see page 152) sailed through reviews from officials at the EPA and other federal agencies.
That report, which integrates the latest climate research, found that greenhouse-gas emissions caused by human activity are altering the planet in fundamental ways. It lays out what we know about the threat of global warming — from deep in the ocean to the highest mountain peaks. And it stands in direct opposition to the climate scepticism voiced by Pruitt and Trump.
Some scientists had feared political interference, but senior officials at federal agencies gave the report the green light, without major changes. This is as it should be: scientists can assess what’s known and probe what is not. And it is up to policymakers to decide what to do with that information. This should be a lesson for Pruitt: the current administration has the right to create its own priorities, but it should not and cannot override what science reveals.