Will EPA Science Advisory Board Bite the Dust?

On Monday EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt announced that “burning of biomass, such as trees, for energy in many cases will be considered “carbon neutral” by the agency,” as reported by the Washington Post’s Chris Mooney and Dino Grandoni.

The Post article goes on to note that

… William Schlesinger, … an EPA Science Advisory Board member, said Pruitt undercut the board — which had been “divided on this subject,” — with this decision. “There would be no point in doing it now,” he said. “We’re supposed to provide analysis of the basis of decisions. He’s already made the decision. So what’s our role?”

My question is whether the EPA’s Science Advisory Board will (or ought to) follow the National Park Service’s Advisory Board lead by resigning en masse following this and other Pruitt stunts.

19 thoughts on “Will EPA Science Advisory Board Bite the Dust?”

  1. Alas, the fictional legitimacy of Herrs Pruitt and Trumpf seem to barely persist on borrowed time: the Constitutional clock is inexorably ticking, and despite the majority party dangling by their fingernails from the pointy end of the Big Hand of Time Itself, Big Ben tick-tocks, unimpressed, undeterred.

  2. What do you do with science advisory boards when there is legitimate scientific agreement? And you need to move forward policy-wise? You can’t force the scientists to agree, but you still need to make policy. If you do.. and that’s my question. Why does it need to be globally decided?.

    At our Yale reunion last fall, Gina McCarthy gave an political speech (we were great, and everything we did was wonderful, these other guys suck, the world is coming to an end, except for states who will ignore the feds who are destroying the planet) (I didn’t think that was appropriate for a reunion- I wanted to learn stuff not be preached to) and mentioned to Steve Hamburg, one of my classmates, something like “why can’t you get those guys to agree?” Of course, Steve can’t get them to agree, nor can anyone, because that’s what makes the scientific process- disagreeing about assumptions, methods and so on. You don’t have to have a Ph.D. in carbon to see (say the example material is the result of thinning for fuel treatment), if the alternative is burning without capturing heat, and the alternative heat source is fossil, it’s probably better than burning it in the woods. Depending on where you get it, how far you move it, and so on.

    Figuring out the carbon situation for biomass has to be done on a case by case basis. That’s why scientists can’t agree more broadly, nor should they. Of course the Euros are using our trees under their definition which makes it more complicated (is their science bad? or are they thinking about it differently? ).

    There must be/have been some policy reason that it is felt that scientists need to agree on this as a generality. Otherwise why not look case by case?

    • I’m fine with looking on a “case by case basis.” What I’m not fine with is autocratic administrators pushing “science advisors” to the sidelines, thereby “Trumping All” via policy pronouncements. If this is what is happening in EPA and Interior I’m not OK with it.

        • “What do you do with science advisory boards when there is legitimate scientific agreement? ”

          Sharon, what one does, is examine claims of legitimacy, especially in the context of the public trust doctrine and the risks vs. rewards and burdens of proof contextualized in the precautionary principle. These are reasonable, unless one elevates economic fundamentalism over egalitarianism, and dismisses the legitimacy of the UN Declarations of Human Rights.

          Yes, I realize the anathema this represents to denialists of Anthropogenic Climate Disruption, but they don’t call these declarations of Rights “Universal” for nuthin’.

          And if such claims of legitimate scientific agreement cannot be supported by fact, nor consensus (consensus beyond the devolved [and often carefully self-]selected arbiters of what constitutes agreement), such claims need be regarded as insufficiently supported, and without merit of consensus.

  3. Speaking of science policy: https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/how-the-epas-new-secret-science-rule/558878/

    “Scott Pruitt’s New Rule Could Completely Transform the EPA.”

    “If it’s actually implemented, it’s going to be revolutionary for EPA science and regulatory science, period,” he said. The new rule would force the agency to reshape rules on radiation, drinking water, pesticides, and air-quality issues, because much of the evidence supporting those rules is drawn from medical research using confidential patient data.”

    BUT – “To anyone who’s looked at a lot of EPA rules, this rulemaking is extraordinary in the lack of reference to any legal authority,”

    (I think they’re want to take us back to when smoking didn’t cause cancer.)

    • The EPA says “The proposed regulation provides that, for the science pivotal to its significant regulatory actions, EPA will ensure that the data and models underlying the science is publicly available in a manner sufficient for validation and analysis.”

      What’s wrong with that? I ask that as one who is not at all enamored of the Trump administration. But without “data and models underlying the science [that] is publicly available in a manner sufficient for validation and analysis,” how is one to determine what is “best available science”?

      • The problem, as repeatedly explained by actual researchers in this field who actually know what they’re talking about, is that this verbiage categorically excludes effectively every public health study ever conducted. Public health studies are *really really hard to do* because people often don’t like talking about their health problems. Not to mention there are federal laws imposing strict regulations and penalties for disclosure of health information about a person. So data has to be thoroughly anonymized and often stringently protected from release.

        But the exclusion of every public health study ever is a *feature*, not a bug, for Pruitt’s EPA.

  4. I think it’s a good idea to require data used in public decisions to be public. Of course, I am for open science, open data, QA/QC, and open and free publication, also.

    The arguments that this won’t work for health studies because the personal information is private seems questionable to me. I don’t think for data to be “open” you would have to tie it to specific research subjects. I read the NY Times story which had many paragraphs on why it’s a bad idea.. and..

    “That, Mr. Lazarus said, would be considered an arbitrary and capricious decision under the Administrative Procedure Act, which governs agency rule-making, and would “subject any agency regulation issued based on such a defective record to ready judicial invalidation.”

    Supporters of the plan, which include the chemical and fossil-fuel industries and prominent climate change denialists, say the regulation will ensure that future E.P.A. policies are based on science that can be independently verified.

    The proposed regulation states that the measure was intended to “strengthen the transparency and validity of E.P.A. regulatory science” and emphasized the financial burdens created by federal regulations. ”

    It would be a fascinating court case that argued that using open data is arbitrary and capricious…so might be QA/QC or even peer review :).

    I might support the plan if I could find a story that actually describes it rather than ones that say other people say it’s bad, and only bad organizations and climate denialists like it. Sigh…

    • Please read this article from AAAS: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/04/new-rule-could-force-epa-ignore-major-human-health-studies

      I have an MS in recreation earned from the IU School of Public Health (where the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Studies is housed), and thanks to those grad classes, I’m quite familiar with the privacy problems inherent to public health research.

      The issue is that “independent verification” of data relating to human health is not possible because that data is generally protected by strict confidentiality requirements which prevent identification of research subjects. Nobody is going to participate in a study of their health if their personally-identifying information and health situation are going to be exposed for the entire world to see and download on the Internet. So the effect of such a rule is that the EPA is going to put its blinders on and pretend all such studies don’t exist.

      That, of course, is precisely what Pruitt wants.

      • AAAS is way biased.. it seems the Big Media (most of the links that show up in Google searches.. by design?) is wound up about this.

        Reasonable people might say in general transparency is good. EPA does plenty of things that are not health studies (say climate change, say biomass, …) .. so maybe transparency would be OK for those?

        What was interesting to me reading some of these is that it tracked back to “war on science” but most of us think that’s what makes science better. What if the FS did a study about say timber harvesting effects and used it to make a decision but all we could say was that it had been peer reviewed? No one could look at the underlying data? Wouldn’t you want to before you used it?

        Peer review can be good, or it can be the worst kind of good old boy system, are you willing to roll the dice with your environment?

        My own example, is that the absolute best review I ever observed was with Forest Inventory data. I attended a meeting when I worked in R&D in which experts (working for industry in the SE US) absolutely looked at the data and all the assumptions and questioned them. I remember the tone being respectful of all. That kind of thing really ensures the best data and interpretations are on the table, and policymakers also know where scientists disagree and can build policy around that.

        • If AAAS is “way biased,” who is not? Maybe that is your point Sharon w/r/t transparency and peer review. But the point Travis raises is also valid when dealing with human health, personal privacy, and so on. So we will all await the promised lawsuits, etc., after the comment period following Pruitt’s decision and notice on what I’ve called the latest “stunt” in Trumpland.

          • My point is that AAAS is not to be trusted as a source of info.. they have an agenda. It’s been a long time since I took statistics at a school of public health (but I did!) and I remember using data that was not tied to specific individuals. As with so many things, I think it is more complicated than “destruction of science.”

            For example, take this one https://nihrecord.nih.gov/newsletters/2011/03_18_2011/story4.htm . it seems like you could look at the data without the personal info or possibly using codes. I also like the idea that folks like Monsanto would be held to open data, including CBI (you would really need a bipartisan group here to figure out where to draw the line).

            Finally I wonder whether some of this is a delayed reaction to the past as Bob Zybach posted in 2014.. https://forestpolicypub.com/2014/03/22/minority-report-epas-playbook-fraud-and-secret-science/
            I wish there were an even-handed source we could go to about this.

            • You argue Sharon that “AAAS is way biased” and “…AAAS is not to be trusted as a source of info.. they have an agenda. ” OK, if AAAS is to be dismissed as an “out-group source,” then I was fishing for an “in-group source” when I asked “who is not biased?”

              Unfortunately we are likely not to agree broadly on any acceptable “in-group source,” so as a fall-back we need to look closely at what is being said by whom and try to determine on a “case by case basis” what we may agree (disagree) with and why. Otherwise, how can we ourselves not be accused of Demagoguery?

              • Dave, I think that this is a big problem. I contacted a few folks in the science policy world yesterday but I get the feeling that they don’t want to weigh in due to academic social issues (it is an academic field of study, and the culture of academia can be difficult in terms of ganging up on people who think differently).

                Short answer: There appear to be many groups pursuing agendas. In the humble world of NCFP we make an attempt to try to see both sides and with our experience and knowledge we can actually do it, or get close. We can examine proposals of different entities and try to look at the different sides without saying It’s the End of the World If That Happens and They Are Evil So Anything They Do Must Be Bad.

                We all have biases, but some people and organizations pretend they don’t. That’s why discussion to uncover different ways of thinking are key. As is “don’t believe everything you read.”

  5. Sharon: “It would be a fascinating court case that argued that using open data is arbitrary and capricious…so might be QA/QC or even peer review :).” I believe the legal point is that it would be arbitrary and capricious to disregard data solely because it was not public (which is what this regulation would require), where the requirement of the law is to use the best available data.

    The Administration admits that it “emphasized the financial burdens created by federal regulations.” I think another legal issue would be that the authorizing statutes administered by EPA don’t authorize this. Policy-wise, I think the obvious point is that this is not about public health or “transparency,” it’s about making money and payback for campaign contributions.

  6. Jon..everything’s to some extent about paying back campaign contributions, whether from environmental NGO’s or industry. It seems to me that there are three topics:

    The origin of the idea
    The idea
    Impacts of implementing the idea.

    I was talking about the idea. You’ll notice that many stories focused on the origin of the idea (industry/ Trump administration/R congressfolk) and possible negative impacts of implementing it (by people who oppose the Trump administration and R congressfolk). This could be a blueprint for every Times and WaPo article about any administration initiative. Trump Administration proposes x. We interview four groups that hate it and quote from them. Imbedded somewhere is what the administration says. Maybe a sentence. There must be other folks who support it..are they quoted?

    For me this is basically content-free and pretty lazy or intentionally biased or both, reporting.

    Let’s do a thought experiment for an Obama administration initiative. What if the article says that it is preferred by environmental groups who made campaign contributions, and quotes four groups that say it’s a bad idea. I guess you’re talking maybe about what Fox News would say. Again, yawn. As the commercial used to say, where’s the beef?

    The answer is that there is no money associated with being outside the echo chambers, or not enough to provide sources that dig into these policy questions and fairly look at both sides.

  7. I don’t think you can start with the false equivalency of the Times and WaPo to Fox. Then I think you have to recognize that the best available information about “the idea” comes from those to whom it is most important (money being one of the factors here). I think motives are always important. While ideally opposing views should be acknowledged, I don’t think it is lazy to not provide the viewpoint of those with low credibility. (I don’t think you are suggesting that “news” should include, in addition to the facts about what the idea is, the news provider’s own opinions on “the idea;” that’s part of the problem.)


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