Week 41: Introducing . . . Pseudoscience Advisory Councils

Week 41: Introducing . . . Pseudoscience Advisory Councils

The EPA chief asks corporations to run U.S. science policy, and a USDA nominee is caught up in the Russia scandal.

Conflict of Information

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt announced this week that scientists who have received research funding from the EPA will not be eligible to serve on the agency’s science advisory panels. He claimed that worries over conflicts of interest motivated the move, saying, “When we have members of those committees that received tens of millions of dollars in grants at the same time that they are advising this agency on rulemaking, that is not good.”

Pruitt’s logic is flawed, though. The EPA provides grants to enable top scientists to answer important questions about toxicology and environmental protection issues. It makes perfect sense for those same scientists—they are, after all, the experts in the field—to be consulted when the agency needs to make regulatory decisions. The scientists don’t receive extra money if the EPA issues (or doesn’t issue) a regulation, so there should be no conflict.

In reality, Pruitt’s ban has nothing to do with conflicts of interest. He’s just trying to stack his advisory panels with industry insiders. Here’s how.

Someone has to pay for scientific research and the salaries of scientists who conduct it. In the United States, the government funds roughly half of all basic scientific research. Even at universities with enormous endowments, researchers are typically expected to obtain funding and a large portion of their salaries from other sources, usually the government.

So, by banning scientists who have received grant funding from the EPA, Pruitt is precluding a very large proportion of scientists at major universities from participating in the agency’s advisory councils. Who’s left? Corporate scientists.

It should go without saying that scientists paid by corporations face far more significant conflicts of interests than those at universities. If an academic scientist recommends an action that’s inconsistent with her employer’s financial interests, she usually faces no consequences, especially if she’s a senior scientist. (That’s why tenure exists.)

Now imagine if a researcher from, say, a pesticide manufacturer is placed on an EPA science advisory council and is asked whether the evidence shows that her company’s pesticide is unsafe. Do you think the company would allow the scientist to be honest without repercussions?

He Fiddles While Your Lungs Burn

EPA chief Pruitt tapped Michael Honeycutt, director of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s toxicology division, to lead the agency’s Science Advisory Board. Honeycutt grabbed headlines in recent years as an opponent of President Obama’s effort to strengthen ground-level ozone standards.

Here’s some background: Ozone forms when sunlight strikes the chemical by-products released by the fossil fuel combustion that occurs in automobiles, power plants, and so on. Ground-level ozone (smog) irritates your airways and is very strongly correlated with a wide array of ailments. People chronically exposed to significant levels of ozone are at increased risk for respiratory disease and tend to die younger—and more than 100 million Americans live in areas with ozone above the EPA’s recommended levels.

There is a mountain of studies proving this correlation, but medical researchers haven’t yet worked out the precise biological mechanism by which ozone kills people. And that’s where Honeycutt comes into our story.

When the Obama administration proposed tightening standards for ground-level ozone from 75 parts per billion to 70 ppb in 2014, Honeycutt was the star witness against the new rules and the medical studies on which they were based. He said: “There are a whole host of commonsense questions that go unanswered in these studies. Simply put, these studies cannot tell us if ozone caused these deaths or if these people died prematurely, much less tell us what level of ozone caused their deaths.”

An important question lies at the core of Honeycutt’s argument: How much evidence of harm should the government require before it acts to regulate a pollutant? There are many reasonable responses, but Honeycutt’s is not one of them. He suggests that scientists must fully understand every link in the chain between a pollutant and a human death before the government makes a single move to protect its people.

The evidence linking ground-level ozone to deaths is substantial. The EPA’s scientific advisory council reviewed 1,700 studies before making its recommendation, finding incontrovertible evidence that people exposed to increased levels of ozone got sicker and died earlier.

Honeycutt is correct that the EPA’s scientists did not autopsy each one of the thousands and thousands of people who died after breathing elevated ozone levels, and we cannot say with perfect certainty which of them died as a result of that exposure. But that’s how epidemiology works—scientists look for correlations between a pollutant and disease; then they work to rule out other explanations. When you repeat that process 1,700 times with different people in different places and get similar results, you can say with high confidence that the pollutant increases the risk of death. That’s a clear case for regulation.

Honeycutt is a classic merchant of doubt. He’s great as an industry spokesperson, but he shouldn’t be making decisions that affect our health.

Nyet on Clovis

We’ve already discussed the nomination of Sam Clovis, a nonscientist who was up for the position of chief scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Clovis was a steaming hot mess of a nominee. For starters, he has made arguably homophobic and racist statements and participated in the birther movement.

Incompetence, homophobia, racism, and conspiracy mongering didn’t disqualify Clovis in President Trump’s eyes. Then he got caught up in the Russia scandal. This week, news emerged that Clovis was the direct supervisor of George Papadopoulos, the Trump foreign policy adviser who had been working to extract “dirt” on Hillary Clinton from Russian sources during the presidential campaign. When Papadopoulos alerted Clovis to an opportunity to meet with Russian officials, Clovis responded, “I would encourage you [to] . . . make the trip, if it is feasible.”

The Trump administration initially stood by Clovis, but he withdrew his name from consideration on Thursday, blaming “the relentless assaults” on the president and his administration that “seem to be a blood sport that only increases with intensity each day.”

Apparently Clovis’s heart is so tender that he not only couldn’t bear a confirmation hearing but couldn’t bring himself to say no to Papadopoulos’s inquiry. Clovis’s attorney described his note encouraging Papadopoulos to consider the Russia meeting as a courtesy “by a polite gentleman from Iowa.”

The is the same polite gentleman who called Attorney General Eric Holder a “racist black” and a “bigot,” President Obama a “Maoist,” and Senator Harry Reid “mentally ill.” What a nice guy. (Regardless, he’d make a terrible chief scientist for the USDA.)

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.