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Safeguarding Independent Science at the EPA

Overview

On January 23, 2018, Protect Democracy and Jenner & Block filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and an individual advisory committee member against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Directive which would remove academic and non-profit scientists who receive EPA grants from EPA advisory committees in a transparent attempt to stack advisory boards with industry-paid scientists.

After UCS won an appeal on March 23, 2020 in the First Circuit which overturned a lower court decision dismissing the lawsuit, the EPA ultimately yielded and announced it would drop its pro-industry and anti-science restrictions, rather than continue to litigate the case. 

Read on for a full description of the case.

Independent facts and institutions, and the open exchange of accurate scientific information, are touchstones of a functioning democracy. Anti-democratic regimes often seek to delegitimize and suppress authoritative voices that offer accurate information, especially if it can be used to criticize the government. President Trump and his administration showed authoritarian tendencies in many ways, including a demonstrated hostility to science and to developing policy based on impartial and balanced scientific evidence. Particularly harrowing examples include subjecting traditionally independent EPA grant funding to political review, and EPA scientists being pulled from public events addressing critical national challenges, apparently because of their scientific views.

In October 2017, Pruitt announced that he would exclude anyone from serving on any of the twenty-three EPA scientific advisory committees if they had received EPA grants to fund any of their research. The Directive was arbitrary, without any factual or legal grounding, and violates the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires advisory committees to be fairly balanced and protected from inappropriate influence by the appointing authority.

As the suit explains, the Directive is an attack on science itself. By accusing academic and non-profit grant-funded scientists of having a conflict of interest, Pruitt sought to portray legitimate, independent scientists—who provide accurate, evidence-based information backed by verifiable, peer-reviewed research in order to inform environmental policy—as just another interest group seeking to advance an agenda. But the EPA should have no vested interest in the outcome of EPA grant-funded research; grant recipients perform independent scientific research and are not beholden to the EPA for any particular result. The EPA’s interest is in obtaining accurate information in order to make the best policy; scientists on advisory committees provide just that—whether or not they receive EPA grants. Certainly, academic and non-profit scientists have significantly less to gain from agency action (or inaction) than the private industry representatives with whom they are being replaced.

This unprecedented Directive attempted to delegitimize and suppress the role of academic scientists advising the agency and, by extension, the results of their research. Government suppression and delegitimization of scientists and scientific research is anti-democratic and impedes the American public’s ability to knowledgeably engage with pressing national issues.

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