By a vote of 229-191, the House has just passed a GOP-sponsored bill to ensure that a more "balanced panel of experts" will advise the Environmental Protection Agency. But critics say it will reduce the participation of independent scientists in favor of those with financial ties to industry.

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Established by Congress in 1978, the EPA's Science Advisory Board (SAB) is authorized to:

  • Review the quality and relevance of the scientific and technical information being used by the EPA.
  • Provide science advice as requested by the EPA Administrator.
  • Advise the agency on broad scientific matters.

In other words, the SAB exists not to advocate any particular policy, but to evaluate whether the best science is being used in agency decisions.

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But what constitutes the "best science" is an increasingly relative concept on Capitol Hill these days. And Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah) claimed that he was making it better when he sponsored H.R. 1422, otherwise known as the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2013.

Currently, the SAB does include advisors with industry expertise. Of the board's current 51 members, which are appointed by the EPA Administrator for three-year terms, three have industry expertise. But Stewart says that's not enough. "All we're asking is that there be some balance to those experts…We're losing valuable insight and valuable guidance because we don't include them in the process."

Stewart, a climate change denier who is the Chariman of the Subcommittee on Environment — and who has said that the EPA is a federal agency that he'd like to see dissolved — announced in a press release following the House vote:

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"Through the EPA, the Obama Administration is aggressively pursuing costly regulations that impact nearly every sector of the American economy. These rules should be based on sound scientific assertions and conclusions. It's critical that we have a balanced panel of experts operating in an open and transparent way. This bill improves that process in key areas."

Fair and Balanced?

That's not how House Democrats see it. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the ranking member on the Science, Space and Technology Committee, describes H.R. 1422 as "one of the most anti-science and anti-health" pieces of legislation she's witnessed in her 22 years in Congress:

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The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2013, paves the way for industry to have a greater influence over EPA by distorting the process for selecting members of the Science Advisory Board in favor of industry-affiliated "experts." It actually prohibits scientists who have relevant subject matter expertise from providing their expert advice to the EPA, increasing the likelihood that industry experts—those with obvious financial conflicts of interest—will be able to skew the recommendations of the Board. The bill also favors industry by creating unnecessary procedural hurdles that will delay EPA actions to protect the health and safety of every American.

Francesca Grifo, a scientist who was previously the director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History, shares that view. In March 2013, she testified before congress that the proposed legislation would "remove longstanding and widely accepted practices for dealing with conflicts of interest" and "reduce the expertise of SAB members":

Conflicts of interest threaten the integrity of science. Specifically, the objectivity of the members of an advisory committee and the public's trust in the advice rendered by that committee are damaged when a member of an advisory committee has a secondary interest that creates a risk of undue influence on decisions or actions affecting the matters in front of the committee. The scientific experts who advise the Government should reflect the best minds in America, possessing comprehensive, independent and up-to-date knowledge.

The [bill] contains a series of disclosure requirements that would upend widely accepted practice for limiting conflicts of interest… an individual who works for a company who has a chemical or product being reviewed by an advisory committee could still serve on the committee and even vote so long as they work on a slightly different chemical or product, have relevant expertise and the conflict is reported. This will not increase the public trust, protect the integrity of the SAB, increase the objectivity of the panel's deliberations, nor reduce the influence of that company on the professional judgment of that individual. This is contrary to the current operations of the National Academies, IARC, and many other scientific bodies.

One notable example of how industry can influence outcomes is the EPA's consideration of hexavalent chromium — the carcinogenic chemical made famous in the Oscar-winning film Erin Brockovich.

Despite the publicity of that case, the Center for Public Integrity reports that tens of millions of Americans have continued to drink chromium-tainted tap water, due to delays created by industry researchers:

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EPA scientists evaluated hundreds of studies and concluded that chromium (VI) likely causes cancer in people who drink it. The agency in 2011 was on the verge of making its scientists' findings official — a first step toward forming more stringent clean-water rules. But.... it bowed to pressure and announced it was going to wait for new studies being paid for by the chemical industry.

The use of science to delay regulation is part of a familiar pattern in the field of environmental science. Industry pays for research to address "data gaps." Even when animals or people are believed to be getting cancer from exposure, industry scientists argue that the chemical in question is dangerous only at extremely high doses. Finally, they argue that you can't determine a safe dose of a chemical unless you understand precisely how it causes cancer. Until all the questions are answered, they say, it's not fair to ask industry to bear the cost of stricter rules.

In the end, the EPA study confirmed the link between chromium and cancer lung cancer — though the industry research delayed publication of their assessment by three years.

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Meanwhile, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act would make it more difficult for independent scientists to advise the agency. As Grifo notes:

The [legislation] would not allow experts to "participate in advisory activities that directly or indirectly involve review and evaluation of their own work" even if their work is one of hundreds of relevant studies. This would disqualify some of the most specialized experts and many committees would instead engage experts whose scientific work is either tangential or unrelated to the committee's deliberations. Currently most federal agencies recuse scientists from any decisions that either directly or indirectly influence the outcome of funding decisions or from participating in peer review of their own work and the work of their collaborators. This works well at the National Academies, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and a host of other federal agencies including EPA.

The bill is now on its way to the Senate. If it passes, according to The Hill, Obama's advisors would recommend that he veto it. If another version of the legislation emerges during a year when a Republican president is in the White House, we could see a very different outcome.