Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has signed a new directive that prevents scientists that are receiving grants from the EPA from serving on the agency’s advisory committees. Pruitt says that this unprecedented move is to remove what he perceives to be a potential bias from the committees, stating that the members of three key EPA boards — the Science Advisory Board, Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, and Board of Scientific Counselors — have received an estimated $77 million in agency funding. The move was quickly criticized by scientists and environmentalists as one that would bar the country’s most qualified scientists from these committees, and at the same time leave the door open for Pruitt to appoint industry-friendly members to advise the EPA.

The EPA provides "over $4 billion in funding for grants and other assistance agreements," according to the agency’s website, meaning that a not-insignificant portion of the environmental research community will be ineligible for committee membership. The directive also makes no mention of barring industry-funded members from serving on the boards, meaning that Pruitt can stack the advisory committees’ rosters with members friendly to the Trump administration’s goal of sweeping environmental deregulation.

Unfortunately, Pruitt is ignoring the current conflict-of-interest rules that have governed the EPA’s 22 advisory committees for 40 years. As it stands, any committee member that is the subject of a conflict of interest must recuse themselves, according to the current Board of Scientific Counselors chair Deborah Swackhamer.

"To simply disqualify a whole bunch of excellent scientists is throwing the baby out with the bathwater," Swackhamer says. "It guarantees a less qualified set of advisers and is a clear attempt by the Administrator to remold these boards to his own liking, so that they will support his deregulation agenda rather than provide objective advice."

Pruitt says he will be appointing new members in the near future, but he has already named three committee heads:

– The new Science Advisory Board head will be Michael Honeycutt, the lead toxicologist for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. Honeycutt has previously challenged EPA efforts to strengthen ozone pollution standards, and is replacing Peter Thorne, head of the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health in Iowa City

– Tony Cox, a risk analysis expert previously contracted by oil and chemical industry clients, will be heading the Board of Scientific Counselors. He is replacing Deborah Swackhamer, a professor who specializes in studying environmental toxic chemicals at the University of Minnesota.

– Paul Gilman will head the Clean Air Committee. Gilman is an executive with waste-handling company Covanta, and previously served as President George W. Bush’s administration as the EPA’s science adviser. Gilman will be taking over for epidemiologist Ana Diez Roux, with Drexel University in Philadelphia.

When asked to provide examples of past conflicts of interest that may have resulted in the EPA receiving bad advice from committee members, Pruitt deflected the question, saying that it was in "poor form" to provide specific examples. 

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