Grant recipients can still give objective advice

US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt made a serious allegation against scientists on October 31. In the interest of restoring scientific “integrity,” Pruitt signed a directive stating that the EPA would no longer allow researchers with active grants from the agency to serve on EPA’s scientific advisory boards.

By their numbers, an unspecified number of scientists in voluntary positions on those boards had received US$77 million in EPA grants over the past three years – more than enough, to raise questions about their ability to provide independent scientific advice. More, Pruitt announced.

It was a cynical move – and completely unnecessary. Ultimately, it is ultimately up to Pruitt and his team to make appointments to the boards, which advise the agency on everything from basic research programs to controversial regulatory decisions.

If Pruitt wanted to increase geographic diversity, or include more people from local, state, and tribal agencies, as claimed, he could do so without fuss. Instead, he opted for a public proclamation that identifies active academic scientists as a unique source of bias. He is wrong, in many respects.

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Scientific investigations require money. It is a fact of life. But getting a research grant is very different from being on the payroll of an organization, advocacy group or company. They are all very real conflicts of interest that were ignored in Pruitt’s directive.

Furthermore, winning a competitive research grant does not imply loyalty to the granting institution. What drives EPA-funded researchers above all else is their desire to deliver the public good: discovery and understanding.

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Of course, scientific conflicts of interest exist. So there are established procedures that require scientists to excuse themselves when their own work is under consideration by the board. These same procedures apply to industry scientists – who are also properly represented on advisory boards – when deliberations involve issues that could affect their companies’ bottom lines.

Pruitt either fails to understand, or has chosen to ignore, that his advisory boards are designed to focus on science, not policy. Understanding the latest research requires the perspective of leading scientists. And when it comes to environmental and human-health issues, it is only expected that many of them will receive research grants from the EPA.

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In the end, Pruitt’s directive appears to be designed to inflame US President Donald Trump’s political base, and is yet another example of researchers being dragged into the country’s political and cultural wars.

Happily, the data is hard to argue with. This may explain why the first volume of a comprehensive – and Congressional-mandated – assessment of climate science, released on November 3, sifted through reviews from officials from the EPA and other federal agencies.

That report, which integrates the latest climate research, found that greenhouse-gas emissions due to human activity are changing the planet in fundamental ways. It reveals what we know about the threat of global warming – from deep in the ocean to the highest mountain peaks. And it stands in direct opposition to the climate skeptics voiced by Pruitt and Trump.

Some scientists feared political interference, but senior officials from federal agencies cleared the report without major changes. This is as it should be: Scientists can assess what is known and investigate what is not. And it is up to policymakers to decide what to do with that information. This should be a lesson to Pruitt: The current administration has the right to make up its own priorities, but should not and should not override what science reveals.

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