After One EPA Science Board Is Trimmed, a Bigger One Awaits

May 11, 2017

U. of Iowa
Peter Thorne, a professor of toxicology at the U. of Iowa and chairman of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board: "I would hate to see a board that didn’t have sufficient representation from academia, because academicians bring a level of scholarly rigor to this that is, I think, probably the highest level."
The Trump administration’s removal of several academic experts from a scientific advisory board at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has renewed concern about the government’s commitment to fact-based policy making.

The advisory panel, known as the Board of Scientific Counselors, lost about half of its 18 members on April 30 as they completed the first of what is typically two three-year terms and were not reappointed.

The EPA said in a statement that it receives hundreds of nominations to serve on the board and that it wanted to provide "fair consideration of all the nominees." An EPA spokesman, J.P. Freire, said that means including more people "who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community."

Some of the dismissed academic experts have criticized the move as part of an administration strategy to replace scientific judgment with political influence at the EPA. Rush Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, called on the EPA to reconsider the dismissals, saying academic scientists "play a critical role in informing policy with scientific-research results."

A more significant move against academic scientists may come this fall, when a larger and more structurally integral EPA advisory panel, known as the Science Advisory Board, faces the renewal — or not — of a third of its approximately 45 members.

Both boards are filled mostly by academic experts, along with some members from private interest groups and companies. The Board of Scientific Counselors is a discretionary creation of the EPA that provides the agency with advice on technical and management issues of EPA research programs. The Science Advisory Board, however, is created by law and charged with ensuring that the EPA uses the best possible science in making decisions. It reviews major EPA reports and has direct input into regulatory actions.

The current chairman of the Science Advisory Board is Peter S. Thorne, a professor of toxicology at the University of Iowa who is one of the members with terms expiring on September 30.

Concerns about the direction of the EPA under the Trump administration and about bills in Congress that would affect scientific input at the agency.
Mr. Thorne is among those concerned by the direction of the EPA under its new leader, Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general known for waging legal battles with the EPA over its attempt to regulate such pollutants as mercury and smog.

Mr. Thorne is also concerned by a couple of moves in Congress that would affect scientific input at the EPA. One bill would pose a major hurdle for university scientists wanting to serve on the Science Advisory Board by barring anyone who held an EPA grant during the previous three years and making them ineligible for an EPA grant for three years after their service. People with corporate affiliations, however, would face no new restrictions.

Another bill, versions of which have been proposed for several years by House Republicans, would bar the EPA from developing new rules unless all the scientific justification involved studies for which all data were made publicly available. Given that many environmental-impact studies involve the collection of personally sensitive data, the bill is regarded by its opponents as an attempt to broadly stifle EPA regulatory processes.

While opposed to both legislative initiatives, and strongly supportive of academic experts serving on EPA advisory panels, Mr. Thorne said corporate experts have played important and constructive roles on his panel and should continue to do so. In an interview with The Chronicle, he also discussed the challenge of finding the appropriate mix of affiliations on the Science Advisory Board.

A transcript of the discussion, edited for brevity and clarity, follows.

Q. Are you concerned about the future membership of your board?

A. Whoever serves on this board has to be an absolute expert in their area. Otherwise they’re just not going to be able to follow the complexity of the discussions. So to get that kind of scientific expertise, we have to get the best people in the country to serve, whether they come from an NGO like the Environmental Defense Fund or from the American Chemistry Council, or if they come from academia. The most important thing is that they have that expertise.

And there’s a lot of vetting that goes on to ensure that there are not conflicts of interest that are going to lead to a lack of impartiality or the impression of a lack of impartiality. It wouldn’t make sense to appoint someone to the board who would be conflicted on everything the board does, and therefore they would not really be able to participate meaningfully.

Q. Right now the membership is mostly university people. Is that the way it should be, and would there be anything wrong with adding a lot more people with corporate affiliations?

“Academicians are oftentimes the ones who are at the leading edge of the research and have the greatest understanding of the underlying science.”
A. I would hate to see a board that didn’t have sufficient representation from academia, because academicians bring a level of scholarly rigor to this that is, I think, probably the highest level. Others also bring great expertise, from places that include the Environmental Defense Fund and the Dow Chemical Company. These are outstanding scholars, but I think, by and large, the academicians are oftentimes the ones who are at the leading edge of the research and have the greatest understanding of the underlying science.

Q. Why is that not true of somebody working for Dow Chemical or ExxonMobil?

A. Companies have great training, and they’re really top-notch scientists. But they have a different perspective, and oftentimes that perspective is more on implementation, or perhaps on best practices. They bring a lot of value to the table, as do the academicians. I’m not saying one is better than the other; I’m saying that having broad representation is a good thing, and we’ve enjoyed having that, and I don’t think we need to have specific quotas in order to have that.

Q. OK, but are you getting the even-handed assessment you seek if there’s an underrepresentation of corporate experts?

A. Before I was chair, in the first several meetings, I didn’t know what people’s day jobs were — whether they were from academia or not. I knew who was an expert in water quality, who was an expert on air pollution, who was an expert on decision science, who was a biostatistician. That’s the way we function — who’s got the expertise in what areas — because we’re not there representing our institutions.

Q. Yes, but you did say earlier that people from companies were more solutions-oriented and somehow viewing the world differently than an academic might.

A. I think it’s worked very well. They get good people to serve, people declare any conflicts of interest, and there’s a formal process for that before every meeting. I haven’t seen a situation I can think of where I thought, "OK, that person is saying that because he or she works at X or Y." I haven’t seen that kind of a circumstance.

Q. What’s your view on the bill pending in Congress aimed at putting more corporate representatives on your board?

“The part of that bill that worries me somewhat is that it seeks to exclude anybody who had EPA funding, for three years.”
A. The part of that bill that worries me somewhat is that it seeks to exclude anybody who had EPA funding, for three years. The people who know the science the best are often the people who are engaged in the type of research we do, and many people have had support from the EPA for that research.

I think it’s the case where any conflicts or the appearance of a conflict have been managed very well by the EPA staff and by the members themselves, and I don’t see that this bill would improve upon that.

Q. When someone declares a conflict, what happens?

A. EPA staff applies federal rules on whether they can participate. Oftentimes it means they would not participate.

One example: While I was serving, my father died, and I was poised to inherit some stock that, as a special government employee, I should not hold. So I had to divest of that before taking possession to avoid a conflict of interest. It was some stock he held in the oil and gas industry.

Q. How can it be an impermissible conflict of interest for you to hold oil stock while someone from ExxonMobil can be on your board?

A. Under federal rules governing the panel, they’re not representing ExxonMobil; they’re representing themselves.

Q. Does that make sense?

A. [Long pause.] I join a board, and I learn the rules of how special government employees are vetted and selected, and how we operate, and I do all the ethics training. And in some cases, it is what it is — we play by the rules.

Q. What’s your take on the bill requiring full disclosure of all data in scientific studies used by the EPA?

A. It seems to contradict the rules of human-subjects protection of data. When we engage people in epidemiological studies, we promise them that we will try to protect their identity and their data. And I think there’s a misconception that makes the data somehow secret, just because a constituent of a congressman can’t go to the study and find out the names of the people from his neighborhood that were in the study. That doesn’t make the science secret.

“There's as much transparency in the science we do as there possibly can be, but we need to protect the identity of human subjects because we have data about people's health.”
There’s as much transparency in the science we do as there possibly can be, but we need to protect the identity of human subjects because we have data about people’s health — about their incomes, whether they smoke or not, in some cases how many pregnancies they had, whether they breast-fed. There’s a lot of private data there that should not be disclosed, and most Americans don’t think that should be disclosed.

There are ways to ensure the integrity of the data without disclosing that level of detail, and we do that through peer review of the science. I think it represents a misconception of what human protections are, versus what is transparency in science.

Q. Is it just a misconception, or an ulterior motive?

A. I’d be reluctant to speculate on that.

Q. A lot of questions in environmental policy seem to come down to the question of putting a particular dollar value on a human life or a year of quality life. Doesn’t that mean the questions you face are really about values rather than science?

A. It is a very complex question you ask, because if you personalize it — what is the value of my life, and to whom? — then it cuts to the core of who we are and what we think about the value of a life.

But from a larger statistical standpoint — and I think this is the important differentiation — for a statistical life over all society, we can estimate how many more lives might be saved, or years of quality life might be saved, if we lower exposure to all of society to xenobiotic X by a certain amount. And it’s essential that we do that, so that we understand that we’re applying our regulatory actions and the dollars that that costs the regulated industry or society, to benefit in terms of saving the most lives and reducing morbidity and mortality to the greatest extent.

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at