The Industry-Friendly Science Advisory Board Act of 2017

Another gift to the chemical industry is being wrapped with a bow by the Republican Congress. The EPA Science Advisory Board is meant to provide scientific advice to the EPA, such as reviewing its chemical hazard assessments. But this new Republican Science Advisory Board Act (SAB Act) would instead invite the chemical and regulated industries to help characterize the science of harm about their own hazardous products. This, ultimately, would make it much more difficult to hold polluting industries accountable.

The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017 (H.R.1431) Introduced by Rep. Frank Lucas, (R-OK) would thwart the ability of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (EPA SAB) to reach timely, independent, objective, credible conclusions that can form the basis of policy.

The SAB Act would prevent EPA from excluding industry-scientists with financial conflicts, so long as their conflicts are publicly disclosed. This is the opposite of the current financial conflict guidelines, which generally exclude experts with financial conflicts, although with a waiver they can be permitted to serve as SAB members on a case-by-case basis.

Apparently, the existing case-by-case waiver system isn’t enough – the Republicans supporting this Bill want to ensure that financial conflicts can no longer be a reason to exclude someone.

The SAB Act also would prevent non-industry scientists from serving.  “Board member shall have no current grants or contracts from the Environmental Protection Agency and shall not apply for a grant or contract for 3 years following the end of that member’s service on the Board.” This means that government-funded experts, which includes most University researchers, would be excluded. This is the mutated spawn of the concept that an expert getting funded by EPA cannot provide independent advice to EPA – ridiculous since EPA research grants are awarded after a lengthy, rigorous, public, competitive process and are given without any constraints on the results or outcome of the research. In contrast, industry-sponsored research has none of those traits, and is more like a gift targeted to specific researchers for the purpose of obtaining pre-defined results.

The SAB Act would burden SAB members with new and unnecessary obligations. Okay, so now we’ve got an Industry-Science Advisory Board (we need a new acronym, like the I-SAB). But, still, there may be some dedicated public servant, maybe a retired University researcher that is no longer getting government grants, but is still willing to volunteer time to this I-SAB? That’s where this poison pill comes in, just to make the task so miserable that nobody without a financial stake in the Board’s work would have the grit to serve. “The Board, member committees, and investigative panels shall accept, consider, and address public comments…”. That means that the Board members not only have to read voluminous relevant documents for which they are supposed to provide advice, but also to review and respond to all the public comments which may be even longer than the documents from EPA. Just in case you’ve never had the pleasure of attending an SAB, I’ll let you know that they are often 3-5 days long, with at least a full day and sometimes longer devoted to public comments, the vast majority of which typically come from the industry. In some cases I’ve seen the chemical industry mount what is essentially a three-ring circus of orchestrated performers – statisticians, toxicologists, epidemiologists – that can go on for 1-2 days.  

Under current rules and practices, the SAB members have access to all public comments that are submitted in advance of the meeting, and accommodate all public comments presented in person at the public meeting. The SAB members are welcome to ask questions of the presenters, or ask for more information. Why would anyone think that the I-SAB should also have to address each and every comment, other than to make service on this panel so overly burdensome that no one without a financial interest in the outcome would have the time or grit to serve.

In short, due to these and other provisions, the “EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017” would alter the nature of the SAB, which has been largely successful in providing the EPA expert review of key scientific and technical questions, and would encourage industry conflicts in the review of scientific materials. It would also pile new and burdensome requirements on the Board, severely hampering its work and effectiveness. The result would be to further stall and undermine important public health, safety and environmental measures.

That is why the Act is opposed by the following health and medical organizations:

  • Alliance of Nurses for Health Environments
  • American Lung Association
  • American Public Health Association
  • American Thoracic Society
  • Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
  • Health Care Without Harm
  • National Medical Association
  • Physicians for Social Responsibility

In short, the SAB “Reform” Act, and its equally awful companion, the “HONEST” Act, are part of the chemical industry's hit parade of schemes to hide the truth about the hazards of their toxic products while promoting industry-sponsored science.

About the Authors

Jennifer Sass

Senior Scientist, Federal Toxics, Health and Food, Healthy People & Thriving Communities Program

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