An Ohio State professor is taking a stand against the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, after he banned scientists who receive EPA funding from serving on any of the agency’s 22 advisory boards.
Despite receiving an email Nov. 3 implying her resignation, Robyn Wilson, an associate professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources, has refused to give up her EPA funding and her membership on the Science Advisory Board, a position she began in 2015 during the Obama administration. The boards provide expert advice to the agency on the science behind important policies and regulations, affecting everything from water quality to public health.
Wilson is defying Pruitt’s new policy because she doesn’t believe it’s legal to stop a member from serving on the board if they receive funding. Pruitt was appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as EPA administrator.
In September, Wilson received a $150,000 grant from the EPA to study how efficiently money is being spent to help improve water quality in Lake Erie.
“It’s not really a choice because I can’t return the money,” Wilson said of the ultimatum. “I can’t bail on my collaborators or on the project.”
Academic researchers like Wilson, in addition to other scientists who work for different industries, are typically chosen as board members to advise the EPA — who might not have the academic expertise in a certain field — on policy and regulation.
For instance, Wilson has worked with farmers on their land-management decisions for six years. She measured their willingness to engage in conservation practices related to nutrient runoff and water quality in Lake Erie.
But Pruitt’s new directive — which EPA spokesman Michael Abboud said Pruitt issued to “ensure independence, geographic diversity and integrity” within the advisory boards — now forbids Wilson from advising the EPA because her current research is funded by the agency itself.
When Wilson first received an email Nov. 3 from advisory board secretary Thomas Carpenter thanking her for her service on the board and implying her resignation, she hadn’t planned on replying.
But later that week Wilson read a blog post from Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, urging board members with EPA funding not to step down until the EPA is “forced to defend its indefensible position in court.”
After reading Burger’s op-ed, Wilson decided to reply.
“Mr. Pruitt is welcome to officially fire me from the Board,” her email response read. “Given I had one year left in my term, and I was hired by the previous Administrator, it seems as if the appropriate way for him to enact this policy is to provide an official letter informing me that I am being let go before my term ends.”
In his piece that influenced Wilson’s reply, Burger argued that Pruitt’s directive essentially lacks justification, citing that there have been no records or hearings accusing board scientists with EPA funding that constitute a conflict of interest.
Pruitt claimed these scientists have a “substantial conflict” serving on the board but has yet to provide an explanation as to what that conflict is.
Additionally, Burger explains in his post that EPA-funded scientists on the board are exempt from being deemed conflicts of interest because of their status as “special government employees” who serve on advisory committees.
“It just makes no sense because when you receive funding from a federal agency or a private agency, they are funding you to answer a question for them,” Wilson said in an interview with The Lantern. “So you design a thoughtful set of studies to answer that question. Whether data does or does not support a certain policy action, we [scientists] have no control over that.”
Joe Arvai, a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan who previously held the same professorship at Ohio State as Wilson, served on the board with Wilson two years ago when she joined.
A self-proclaimed “vocal critic” of Pruitt’s advisory board policy since its inception nearly six months ago, Arvai said he was originally concerned with the symbolism behind the “political noise” Pruitt created with the directive, but now believes a bigger problem exists.
Citing a report by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting, Arvai said 68 percent of the new Science Advisory Board is now “pro-industry,” which he said means Pruitt can justify potentially bad regulations with faulty science.
For example, the Science Advisory Board to which Wilson and Arvai belonged would theoretically comment on the scientific reports related to water quality in Lake Erie and provide clarifications about the reported data — essentially determining what may or may not be a healthy level of nutrient runoff into Lake Erie.
At that point, Pruitt could take into consideration — or not — the expert advice from the scientists to inform the decisions he would ultimately make regarding regulation of the runoff.
Both Arvai and Wilson said there are potentially “dire consequences” to public and environmental health since 14 of the new advisory board members directly work for industries regulated by the EPA. Those industries contributed nearly $320,000 to Pruitt’s Senate campaign in Oklahoma.
“What’s kind of ironic about it is it seems like the administration is trying to stack the board with people who are against regulation,” Wilson said. “And most of my research shows that we can improve water quality in the Great Lakes through voluntary actions. Regulation might not be necessary.”