Two letters, one signed by 8 national environmental organizations, and the other from 13 prominent scientists, were sent to Congress today to oppose a House Science Committee bill drafted by several Republicans that would strip the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scientific Advisory Board of the ability to provide independent oversight. It is called H.R. 6564, the “EPA Science Advisory Board [SAB] Reform Act of 2012”. H.R. 6565 is intended to discredit EPA-funded academic scientists, and to create a false equivalence concerning conflict-of-interest between industry and government funded scientists.
The EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB) was established by Congress in 1978 to provide credible, independent scientific and technical advice to EPA. The work is done by standing committees that report to the Board on a wide-range of issues including clean air, drinking water, human health, and economics. The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) imposes requirements on agencies when they establish or utilize any advisory committee, including that they must ensure that an advisory committee is "in the public interest," id. App. II, § 9(2), is "fairly balanced in terms of points of view represented and the function to be performed," id. § 5(b)(2), and does not contain members with inappropriate special interests. Id.§ 5(b)(3).
H.R. 6564 flies in the face of the intention of the FACA law to protect the integrity, credibility, and independence of the SAB and its subcommittees. Although the entire bill has serious problems, here are what I consider to be the most damaging and destructive provisions:
1- The bill limits participation by scientists receiving funding from EPA while they serve on the Board to no more than 10% of the total committee. This targets academic/university scientists, typically considered the most independent among experts, because their research is not funded by industries with a stake in the outcome of the research. Typically, EPA funds university research projects in the public’s interest, including projects on children’s environmental health and disease prevention, on Tribal environmental health, on treatment technologies for drinking water systems, and on improving environmental health factors in school and childcare facilities. Other than government funding, most of the research that is used by EPA is funded by industry with clear, profit-motivated special interests. So, by limiting government-funded experts, H.R. 6564 will populate advisory committees with more industry-affiliated experts.
2- Ironically, while the Bill considers independent academic experts to be financially conflicted if they receive government funding, it actually states that people “are not excluded from the Board due to affiliation with or representation of entities that may have a potential interest in the Board’s advisory activities, so long as that interest is fully disclosed.” This means that H.R. 6564 would not exclude individuals, even if they have actual financial conflicts, ushering industry-sponsored people onto advisory committees. For example, while a university professor with a competitive research grant from EPA to study the cancer risks from chromium-contaminated drinking water would be disallowed, a scientist with funding from the chromium industry would be permitted on the Board, as long as the financial conflicts were disclosed publicly. This would essentially block the experts whose research shows the health risks of contaminants, while favoring researchers that fail to find a risk.
3- The bill would also eliminate experts from serving on review committees if it involved “directly or indirectly” reviewing and evaluating their own work. This would eliminate specialized experts, leaving committees populated with less-than-experts, nearly-experts and experts-in-something-else whose scientific work is either tangential or unrelated to the committee’s deliberations. This will destroy the ability of the SAB’s to provide top-notch expert advice.
Science plays a critical role in assessing the safety and efficacy of consumer and industrial products. There is plenty of history and evidence to support the public health benefit of limiting industry-sponsored scientists from participating on expert advisory committees like the SAB where they have a financial conflict or competing interest. The long-time editor of the British Medical Journal, Richard Smith, reported in 2005 that “overall, studies funded by a company were four times more likely to have results favorable to the company than studies funded from other sources.” The potential for scientific reporting to be biased toward a sponsor has been documented for research on many hazardous agents, including secondhand tobacco smoke, chromium, asbestos, and lead in the 2008 book, Doubt Is Their Product: How Industry’s Assault on Science Threatens Your Health, by David Michaels, currently the head of OSHA. That book carefully documents the intention of regulated industries to influence government agencies so as to weaken the regulation of their products, not to improve scientific quality. The “reforms” of the SAB process put forth in H.R. 6564 will simply strengthen the ability of regulated industries to achieve its goals.
Even if H.R. 6564 does not move forward in the House in its current form, it is likely to be re-introduced when Congress reconvenes and its sponsors will try to move it forward and promote its ideas. The chemical industry, its lobbying arm called the American Chemistry Council (ACC) is publicly supporting the bill.
ACC’s support of this bill is in keeping with its previous activities. ACC and its polluting corporate members are engaged in multiple efforts to promote industry-sponsored science while attempting to discredit independent academic and government research and experts (see blogs here by me, and here by my colleague Daniel Rosenberg for details on ACC’s activities to defend the toxic products of its corporate members). H.R. 6564 is one of the nastiest, attacking the very heart of expert scientific oversight.
See the excellent blog on this bill by Richard Denison at EDF here