The EPA recently selected new members for both its science advisory board (SAB) and the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). The appointments raise questions about what constitutes a disqualifying conflict of interest to serve on these committees. In a broader sense the appointments also raise questions about how agency heads should compile outside expertise to help inform the policymaking process.
In regards to conflict of interest, the EPA decided recently that researchers with current EPA funding are not be eligible to serve on science advisory committees, regardless of whether the funds were awarded through a competitive peer-review process. However, the current restriction to serve based on funding sources is not equally applied to individuals with current funding from industries regulated by the EPA, even if the funding is directly awarded without a competitive peer-review process. In fact, a number of the newly appointed members of CASAC and the SAB have current funding ties with regulated industries.
The concerns that funding may bias an individuals ability to impartially participate on an expert committee are not always clearly delineated. Perhaps the most pressing concern is the potential for experts to act as de facto lobbyists in a way that could result in direct monetary benefits to the individual or individual's family. Other concerns about impartiality might include: researchers giving undue weight to their own research results whether or not there are conflicting results from other studies; exaggeration of the relative importance of a particular scientific area in an effort to either increase or decrease the attention and funding opportunities for researchers focused on those topics; and the potential for group-think if agencies don't look outside the walls of their funded experts to elicit scientific guidance. Fortunately policies and practices have long been in place at the EPA to prevent these types of problems. They include: not staffing SAB sub-committees with members that have prominent research in the subject matter, limiting the influence that any one member can have on SAB subcommittees, and prohibiting participation from individuals whose current agency funding did not come through a competitive peer-review process.
While conflict of interest issues are of tremendous importance, the relationship between science advisory committees and policy decisions may merit even more attention. Agency heads and other policymakers are not obligated to make decisions entirely based on expert scientific advice. There is a long history recognizing that there are factors other than scientific findings that should inform public decision-making—factors such as economic considerations; public priorities and preferences; administration priorities and preferences; and limitations from current regulations in federal and state law that may constrain or compel regulatory actions. Even the Clean Air Science Advisory Committee, which gives recommendations for the setting of National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS), has repeatedly recognized that there are "other considerations" in addition to scientific review that go into the setting of federal air quality standards even though revisions of the standards are among the most explicitly constrained regulatory decisions in regards to basing changes entirely on public health considerations.
Given that there are no requirements or mandates to explicitly follow guidance from science advisory boards when making regulatory decisions, there is no reason for agency heads to populate these boards with anyone but the most qualified and capable experts who can provide scientific guidance and review on pending agency decisions and other agency matters. In other words, there is no particular advantage for decision-makers to surround themselves with advisory board members that explicitly share common policy views especially if it comes at the expense of having access to the best scientific information that can help inform policy decisions. This is a non-partisan viewpoint that has been echoed in recent comments from former EPA administrators from both Republican and Democratic administrations.
There are plenty of qualified individuals who are willing to serve on the science advisory committees of the EPA and other agencies — even if restrictions are placed on participation based on a scientist’s current source of funding for research. Finding highly qualified experts is likely possible even if participation were accompanied by restrictions on the ability to obtain future agency funding for a period of time following service on scientific committees. However, if restrictions to serve on advisory committees are to be partially based on research funding, it should at minimum be uniformly applied. If the restriction is applied to those with EPA funding, it should also be applied to those with funding from regulated industries. Similarly, funding from a competitive peer-review process, whether from industry or EPA, should be treated differently from funding that is awarded through direct contracts.
Tile photo from Samuel Zeller.