Ep. 30: Meet the Scientist Standing Up to Scott Pruitt

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Ohio State University researcher Robyn Wilson is refusing to step down from her role on the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board. Photo: Photo: Ris Twigg, The Lantern

Ohio State University researcher Robyn Wilson is refusing to step down from her role on the EPA's Scientific Advisory Board. Photo: Photo: Ris Twigg, The Lantern

Can scientists who get grant money from the Environmental protection agency be objective enough to serve on its advisory boards? According to Administrator Scott Pruitt, the answer is “no.”

On this episode we’re talking about one aspect of the sweeping changes taking place at EPA: Scott Pruitt’s bar on scientists who’ve taken money from the agency also serving on its scientific advisory boards. These are the scientist who help EPA evaluate the science behind its regulations.

Pruitt’s reason for kicking off EPA-funded scientists from EPA committees is that they could be biased. “What’s most important at the agency is to have scientific advisors that are objective, independent-minded, providing transparent recommendations,” Pruitt said.  “And if we have individuals who are on those boards receiving money from the agency….that to me causes questions on the independence, and the voracity and the transparency of those recommendations that are coming our way.”

Some people who weren’t included in this new policy: people who’ve taken money from industries the EPA regulates. But scientists who receive grant money from the agency had to choose between keeping their funding or serving as advisors.

Robyn Wilson says it was a false choice. Wilson has been serving on EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board for the last couple of years. She is Associate Professor of Risk Analysis and Decision Science at Ohio State University. And she just received her first EPA grant to look at the effectiveness of the millions of dollars spent to improve water quality on the Great Lakes.

“When I was specifically brought on there seemed to be a push at the time to bring more social scientists onto the board. A recognition that perhaps that was a kind of overlooked area of science that could be really relevant to the agency being more effective.”

Wilson says they met once a year in person, and reviewed scientific data and research. It took up about ten days of her time in a calendar year. And she says there was some modest compensation for her time and travel.

As part of her work on the advisory board, she weighed in on a variety of questions the EPA is trying to answer. One topic they researched was the science of biogenic carbon emissions, like, if emissions from burning wood are different than those from burning coal--and should they be treated differently through regulation? The board hasn’t come to a consensus yet.

Another example: She was the lead on a topic close to her own work: efforts to reduce the amount of phosphorus getting into Lake Erie.

“Because the board is diverse you have people is who can specifically speak to different aspects of these rather complex problems.”

Wilson,a behavioral decision scientist, says Pruitt’s questioning about whether scientists who receive EPA funding can be objective goes against the basic tenet of science. “There’s a question that you’re trying to answer, and you design the most rigorous and thoughtful methods to collect data and answer that question, and then the data answers the question, the scientist doesn’t answer the question,” she says.

Wilson says her $150,000 grant and the modest compensation she gets for her time and travel to advise EPA don’t stack up to the money that states and industry have to lose. Positions like hers are being filled in part by representatives from industries the agency regulates. Plus, she says, she’d already been through a rigorous ethics training with EPA to avoid conflicts of interest.

The impact that the new policy could have on the guidance EPA gets from advisory boards isn’t yet known. Wilson thinks in the short-term, it will just make the boards ineffective. But in the long-term, the effect could be more obvious.

“In two more years they would essentially be able to replace the entire board with new members who have a bias in another direction,” she says. “So at that point, they would be more able to push a particular agenda, if the board was more biased toward a particular perspective, like a deregulatory perspective. I think we all assume that because that’s been a clear focus of this administration.”

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This episode was hosted by Kara Holsopple. Trump on Earth is produced by The Allegheny Front, a Pittsburgh-based environmental reporting project, and Point Park University's Environmental Journalism program. 

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