Scientists Sue EPA Over 'Attempt To Delegitimize Science'

They argue Administrator Scott Pruitt’s purge of independent advisers was unlawful and unprecedented.
Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, claims his limitation on scientific advisers will "strengthen member independence."
Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, claims his limitation on scientific advisers will "strengthen member independence."
Aaron Bernstein / Reuters

The Environmental Protection Agency has been sued over an October directive issued by Administrator Scott Pruitt prohibiting scientists who receive funding from the agency from serving on its advisory boards.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, and Dr. Elizabeth “Lianne” Sheppard, a professor at the University of Washington School of Public Health and a member of the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, argue that the agency’s directive is “arbitrary” and “an attempt to delegitimize science.”

The directive “is an attack on science itself, as it portrays legitimate, independent scientists ― who provide accurate, evidence-based information backed by verifiable, peer reviewed research in order to inform environmental policy ― as just another interest group seeking to advance an agenda,” the lawsuit claims.

The suit contends that Pruitt’s directive violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a 1972 law that requires such committees to be fairly balanced and “not be inappropriately influenced by the appointing authority or by any special interest.”

“I am committed to serving on federal advisory committees because I believe this is one of the most effective ways for me to use my scientific expertise to promote public health,” Sheppard said in a statement Wednesday. “This directive forces me to choose between my own work and my commitment to the public.”

In order to keep her seat on an advisory committee, Sheppard told HuffPost, she chose to walk away from a $3 million grant her university recently received from the EPA. The funding would have allowed her to continue studying how air pollution affects the cardiovascular system.

“I’ve been working on the study for over 10 years,” Sheppard said. “So, yeah, I would like to continue to work on that study ― absolutely. ... The EPA already has good processes in place to review and manage conflicts of interest, and I don’t think this directive contributes to that.”

For many scientists, funding from the EPA or other government agencies is one of the few financial resources available. While Pruitt claimed the ban would “strengthen member independence,” critics said the move would clear a path for industry-friendly advisers to gain more influence within the agency.

“Anti-democratic governments thrive on obfuscating truth and seeking to suppress scientists.”

- Jamila Benkato, counsel at Protect Democracy

In a statement Wednesday, Joshua Goldman, senior legal analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the directive “an abuse of power and an affront to the scientific integrity of the EPA and the federal government.”

The nonpartisan legal advocacy nonprofit Protect Democracy and the law firm Jenner & Block filed the suit for the plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts.

“Anti-democratic governments thrive on obfuscating truth and seeking to suppress scientists and other authoritative voices that offer accurate information,” said Protect Democracy counsel Jamila Benkato. “The EPA’s directive is one more example of the administration’s assault on facts.”

Under Pruitt, a Trump appointee and longtime fossil fuel proponent, the EPA has taken a more industry-friendly approach to regulations and rolled back a number of environmental protections. Several veteran EPA officials have quit since Pruitt came on board, while dozens of other people have been booted from their positions on the agency’s scientific advisory boards.

Michael Abboud, press secretary for the EPA, told HuffPost he could not comment on pending litigation. But Liz Bowman, associate administrator for the agency’s Office of Public Affairs, said Pruitt’s statement from an October press release about the directive spoke “directly” to the claims in the lawsuit.

Read the scientists’ full complaint below:

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