I heard from a friend over the weekend that the Environmental Protection Agency’s Administrator, Scott Pruitt, was following through on promises by representatives in Congress to “reform” the agency’s two scientific advisory boards: The Chartered Science Advisory Board (SAB), which provides advice to the administrator, and the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), which provides advice to the agency’s Office of Research and Development. This friend had just been informed that his tenure on BOSC would not be renewed despite recent assurances from the EPA to the contrary.
It didn’t take long after hearing about this that my mobile phone and email sprung to life with calls and questions from colleagues and reporters. Had I been fired yet? Would I resign first?
The questions didn’t come as much of a surprise to me since I serve as a member of the SAB, and have done so since 2011; I also served as a consultant to the SAB’s staff office between 2003 and 2009.
Likewise, I wasn’t surprised by the questions since the SAB has been the target of criticism from Congress for nearly as long as I can remember. These critiques culminated this past March with the passing of H.R. 1431, also known as the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act. Beneath the political jargon and rhetoric, the intent of H.R. 1431 is to give business and industry greater influence over EPA rulemaking.
As a professor at a prominent business school, and as the director of an academic institute that sits at the nexus between business and the environment, this weekend’s action by Mr. Pruitt, as well as H.R. 1431, are misguided.
Long-term success in business and industry depends every bit as much on credibility as it does on regulatory relief. Even the perception that business is interfering with EPA rulemaking such that it places environmental and human health at risk would be met with resistance from consumers and shareholders alike.
At the same time, the actions of Mr. Pruitt and H.R. 1431 both reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of what the SAB does, and who the SAB is. In reading conservative coverage, it’s easy to imagine the SAB as a scientific star chamber with authority over business and political elites, up to and including the administrator and the EPA itself.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Mr. Pruitt, environmental hardliners in Congress, and the president himself are pandering to their bases.
Regarding the SAB’s role, it is to review — in an open and public forum — the scientific basis upon which some EPA rules and plans—which are approved by the Office of the Administrator — are based; it is not to review the rules and plans themselves. Likewise, it’s important to understand that the Office of the Administrator calls the SAB with questions; we don’t cold call the Administrator with unsolicited opinions. Finally, input to the Administrator from the SAB is advisory, not compulsory. It’s entirely up to the Administrator if he or she adopts—or chooses to reject—input from the SAB. (For the record, I’ve seen plenty of examples of the latter since I started working with the EPA in 2003.)
In terms of membership on the SAB, or on the many ad hoc and standing committees, it’s not all bleeding-heart liberals and tree-huggers. In my different SAB roles, I’ve served alongside scientists from the oil and gas industry, chemical companies, pharmaceutical giants, agribusiness, local and state governments, Native American tribes, and countless others. It’s rare to see membership on committees assembled by the private or public sectors that reflect as much attention to diversity — including a diversity of thought — as is the case with the SAB.
To make a long story short, the composition and level of influence which appear to be desired by Mr. Pruitt and Congress for the EPA’s Science Advisory Board are already in place, and have been for a very long time.
Why go ahead, then, with public dismissals of science advisers and bills like H.R. 1431?
The answer is simple: appearance over substance.
Through these moves, Mr. Pruitt, environmental hardliners in Congress, and the president himself are pandering to their bases. The realities of what the SAB does, and who its members are, aren’t as important to these individuals as alternative facts — about a group of liberal obstructionists — created for little more than political effect.
Dr. Joseph Arvai is the Max McGraw Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan, and he is a member of the U.S. EPA’s Chartered Science Advisory Board. He can be reached on Twitter at @DecisionLab.