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 have shown authoritarian tendencies in many ways, including a demonstrated hostility to science and to developing policy based on impartial and balanced scientific evidence. Recent 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.
Today, Protect Democracy and Jenner & Block represented the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) and an individual advisory committee member in filing suit against the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), challenging one such attempt by the administration to delegitimize science and scientists: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Directive removing academic and non-profit scientists who receive EPA grants from EPA advisory committees. In October, 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 is 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 seeks 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.
The ability of ordinary citizens to participate in robust public discourse and to hold government leaders accountable requires a baseline agreement about fundamental facts. Anti-democratic regimes thrive on obfuscating truth—in part, by seeking to delegitimize and suppress authoritative voices that offer accurate information that can be used to inform the public or criticize the government. Scientists are often a target of such efforts. This unprecedented Directive is an attempt to delegitimize and suppress the role of academic scientists advising the agency and, by extension, the results of their research.
American policymakers, businesses, and the American public must be able to trust that the government’s policies are grounded in fact-based analysis. A policy that excludes the nation’s most eminent scientists not only silences key, unbiased voices in EPA policy development, but signals government disapproval of the former committee members’ work—including, for example, critical climate change 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.