EPA's Pruitt Takes Aim at Science Advisers

The objectivity of the experts who serve on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) science advisory boards is a major concern for Administrator Scott Pruitt. During remarks at the conservative Heritage Foundation, Pruitt previewed a forthcoming directive that targets science advisers who have received research grants from the EPA. Pruitt said that some advisers have received “substantial” amounts of funding.

Although the new policy has not yet been released, Pruitt suggested that he would remove advisory committee members who receive grants from the EPA.

Scientists quickly defended the existing rules regarding conflict of interest, which require an adviser to recuse themself if a conflict exists.

“To simply disqualify a whole bunch of excellent scientists is throwing the baby out with the bathwater,” said Deborah Swackhamer, chair of the EPA Board of Scientific Counselors. “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.”

Ana Diez Roux, who until recently chaired the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, said “The top scientists, the ones most qualified to provide objective and transparent scientific advice to EPA, are of course the scientists who will likely be most successful at obtaining highly competitive federal grants. It would be a disservice to the American public to exclude those most qualified from serving on these panels.”

There is concern that Pruitt may look to legislation passed by the House of Representatives (H.R. 1431) that would bar any scientist who currently has EPA grants or contracts from serving on an advisory body. Moreover, advisory board members would be barred for three years from applying for agency funding. Although the bill passed the House in March 2017, it has not yet moved in the Senate.

EPA has already asked members of two advisory panels whether they are currently receiving grants from the EPA. An agency employee said that Pruitt “is in the process of making final decisions” on membership for those panels and “additional clarification is needed. Membership selection will reflect potential policy changes concerning whether the member or candidate has a current active EPA grant.”

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Bill Targets 'Silly' Science

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has introduced legislation to reform the review process for federal research grants. S. 1973, the BASIC Research Act would overhaul the grant award process to end supposedly wasteful government spending.

Notably, the bill would also require all grant applications to be available to the public and would prohibit subgrants unless the recipient is disclosed on a publicly accessible website.

The bill would require grant review panels to include a taxpayer advocate as well as an expert “in a field unrelated to the field of research under which the grant proposal was submitted” who is “not professionally affiliated with any academic or research institution.”

A new watchdog office would be created to replace the Office of the Inspector General of the National Science Foundation. The new office would “review Federal grant projects to determine if the research will deliver value to the taxpayers by randomly selecting Federal grants for review after awards are made but prior to distribution of funds.”

The legislation would also codify current federal requirements regarding open access. All results of federally supported research would have to be available to the public within 12 months of publication in a peer-reviewed journal.

Senator Paul’s bill was considered during a recent hearing by the Senate Subcommittee on Federal Spending Oversight and Emergency Management.

“From my point of view, we do have a problem. We do have silly research going on,” said Senator Paul.

Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-MI) pushed back on that notion. “While certain basic research projects that have received federal funding have some very silly-sounding titles, further examination may reveal the true scientific merit and potential broader impacts of that work.”

S. 1973 currently has no co-sponsors and its prospects are unclear.

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NSF Recruiting for Head of BIO

The National Science Foundation is seeking candidates to serve as Assistant Director for Biological Sciences. The position oversees five biological sciences divisions: Division of Molecular and Cellular Biosciences, Division of Biological Infrastructure, Division of Integrative Organismal Systems, Division of Environmental Biology, and Emerging Frontiers Office.

Dr. James Olds has served as assistant director since October 2014.

The search committee is seeking recommendations for individuals who are outstanding leaders, have a deep sense of scholarship, and a grasp of the issues facing the biological sciences. Recommendations from academia, industry, and government are welcome. Recommendations are due by 10 November 2017 to biosrch@nsf.gov.

The new assistant director may be hired on a temporary or permanent basis.

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Government Report: Climate Change is Costly

A new report from the Government Accountability Office found that climate change is already costing the U.S. billions of dollars. More than $350 billion was spent over the past decade on natural disaster assistance and to cover claims filed under flood and crop insurance programs. This estimate does not include the costly damages from the hurricanes or wildfires in 2017.

“Climate change impacts are already costing the federal government money, and these costs will likely increase over time as the climate continues to change,” the report said.

The report was requested by Senators Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Susan Collins (R-ME).

“Our government cannot afford to spend more than $300 billion each year in response to severe weather events that are connected to warming waters,” Collins wrote in a statement. “I hope the release of this analysis will cause all of us to think more broadly about this issue, take a harder look at the economic consequences of inaction, and use what is known about climate risks to inform federal policy.”

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Short Takes

  • The Environmental Protection Agency barred two agency scientists and an EPA contractor from speaking at a conference on the health of Narragansett Bay. Agency spokesperson John Konkus said, "EPA scientists are attending, they simply are not presenting, it is not an EPA conference." One of the scientists was scheduled to deliver the keynote address.

  • The Association of Ecosystem Research Centers held a science briefing for policymakers on Capitol Hill on 24 October 2017. The event highlighted how ecosystem research is helping to combat emerging infectious diseases, such as Ebola and Lyme disease. Copies of the presentations are available online at https://www.aibs.org/rsvp/aerc.html. Members of the Association also received a half-day of communications training from AIBS.

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Become an Advocate for Science: Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center

Quick, free, easy, effective, impactful! Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center.

The Legislative Action Center is a one-stop shop for learning about and influencing science policy. Through the website, users can contact elected officials and sign-up to interact with lawmakers.

The website offers tools and resources to inform researchers about recent policy developments. The site also announces opportunities to serve on federal advisory boards and to comment on federal regulations.

This new tool is made possible through contributions from the Society for the Study of Evolution, Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, and the Botanical Society of America.

AIBS and our partner organizations invite scientists and science educators to become policy advocates today. Simply go to policy.aibs.org to get started.

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