By Kevin Mooney | The Daily Signal
Try asking the nation’s top environmental protection official to “describe the shortcomings of the scientific evidence for climate change,” and what type of data he might find persuasive on the subject.
You might shake loose news of major policy changes designed to end what President Donald Trump’s team sees as potential conflicts of interest that undermine the value of scientific advice to the government agency.
That opportunity came Tuesday for an audience member during The Heritage Foundation’s annual President’s Club meeting in Washington, where Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who now heads up the Environmental Protection Agency, took on that question.
Pruitt revealed that he will issue a directive aimed at ensuring the “independence, transparency and objectivity” of experts who serve on the agency’s scientific advisory boards. He suggested he may rule out science advisers with a history of taking EPA grants, sometimes “to the tune of literally tens of millions of dollars.”
“I think what’s most important at the agencies is to have scientific advisers who are objective, independent-minded, providing transparent recommendations to me as the administrator and to our office on the decisions that we’re making on the efficacy of rules that we’re passing to address environmental issues,” Pruitt said, adding:
If we have individuals that are on those [scientific advisory] boards that are receiving money from the agency, sometimes going back years and years to the tune of literally tens of millions of dollars over time, that to me causes questions on the independence and the veracity of the transparency of the recommendations that are coming our way.
The EPA administrator did not spell out what would be in his directive, but he drew a parallel with the steps he already has taken to end the practice known as sue and settle.
Speaking at length on the topic, he said that sue and settle enabled federal agencies to “engage in rulemaking through the litigation process.” Critics have faulted the practice for permitting environmental advocacy groups to set regulatory policy without input from the public or Congress.
Pruitt’s expected directive could immediately affect the 47-member Science Advisory Board, which is charged with reviewing the quality of scientific information that underpins EPA regulations. The board also reviews EPA research programs and directly advises the administrator.
Terms for 15 members of the Science Advisory Board are set to expire, and the agency has published a list of 132 possible candidates for the open seats.
Some on the list have expressed skepticism in one form or another toward the idea that human activity is the primary driver of climate change, much to the consternation of certain environmental advocacy groups.
These candidates include Kevin Dayaratna, senior statistician at Heritage’s Center for Data Analysis; Craig Idso, senior fellow at Heartland Institute, a free-market think tank; and Paul Driessen, senior policy adviser at the Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, a libertarian environmental organization.
A report in The Washington Post on Pruitt’s interview at the Heritage event with Rob Bluey, editor-in-chief of The Daily Signal, quoted officials with the Natural Resources Defense Council and Union of Concerned Scientists who said the EPA administrator should apply the same standard concerning potential conflicts of interest to science advisers who receive funding from private corporate sources connected with the oil and gas industry.
But Steve Milloy, publisher of JunkScience.com, told The Daily Signal in an email that Pruitt’s pending directive is right on target.
“For too long, EPA has been able to purchase the ‘science’ it wants from grants-hungry researchers and their universities,” Milloy said, adding:
The EPA would then employ these same scientists to review their own work under the guise of peer review. This system is entirely corrupt if not illegal, as the applicable laws require the boards to be independent and unbiased. Congress has tried to fix this problem, but has been unable. It’s terrific that Scott Pruitt has recognized the seriousness of this problem and is now taking steps to fix it.
Contrary to the howling of the left, this is not a purge of any viewpoints. This is a first step in restoring the purpose of the science review boards—to provide EPA with the various views of experts vs. the rubber-stamping of the agency agenda by cronies. There are many more steps that need to be taken to right the science advisory panel ship at EPA, but this is an important first one.
William Yeatman, a senior fellow with the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said he credits Pruitt for compelling the EPA to live up to its own standards. Yeatman cites reports from the agency’s own Office of Inspector General and from Congress, including:
—EPA has taken the position that receipt of government grants doesn’t constitute a financial conflict of interest. However, the agency’s own Peer Review Handbook states that grants can be a conflict of interest if the advisory board plans to address work performed under the research grant.
—Six of the seven members of the 2015 Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, appointed by President Barack Obama, received a total of $119.2 million in EPA research grants, according to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. The panel, the most important of the science advisory boards, recommends national ambient air quality standards.
—The Obama administration’s prior clean air panel cited its own work more than 700 times, according to the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.
“The data suggest that these grants do indeed raise a conflict of interest as EPA defines it,” Yeatman said in an email to The Daily Signal. “So I welcome this reform effort to bring integrity to the advice EPA receives from outside advisers. For better or for worse, there are other federal sources of funding for science (e.g., NSF or NIH). It just makes sense to have EPA comport with its own rules.”
His references were to the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
During his interview with Bluey, Pruitt also offered up his own definition of environmentalism, in contrast to how he said it has been defined by contemporary advocacy groups:
True environmentalism from my perspective is using natural resources that God has blessed us with to feed the world, to power the world with the sensitivity that future generations cultivate, to harvest, to be respectful good stewards, good managers of our natural resources, to bequeath those natural resources for the next generation.