Environmental Protection Agency

If Industry-Funded Scientists Can Be Conflicted, Surely Government-Funded Scientists Can Be Too

Scott Pruitt blocks EPA-funded researchers from serving on the agency's advisory boards.



Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt has declared that researchers who receive funding from his agency cannot serve on its scientific advisory committees. "It is very, very important to ensure independence, to ensure that we're getting advice and counsel independent of the EPA," Pruitt told reporters Tuesday, according to The Washington Post.

Nearly 10 years ago, I researched the issue of research conflicts of interest for the American Council on Science and Health. My report concluded that

there is very little evidence that alleged conflicts of interests are significantly distorting scientific research, harming consumers and patients or misleading public policy. Most conflicts of interest activists clearly have prior strong ideological commitments against markets and corporations. They view the conflicts of interest campaign as another tool to attack an enterprise which they already despise on other grounds.

Interestingly, in my review of the voluminous conflicts-of-interest literature 10 years ago, I could find no published studies that even attempted to see whether government funding might skew research results in the direction favored by the agency that supported such research.

If there are any such studies out there, please direct my attention toward them now. The topic is certainly worth addressing. As the economists William N. Butos and Thomas J. McQuade argued in 2005,

Scientists' success in securing funding testifies to their submission of proposals that receive a favorable hearing by the funding agencies. Thus, scientists have an incentive to develop and nurture professional relationships with agency members, advisors, and consultants. Finally, government funding of science, including that associated with military R&D, unavoidably establishes linkages between the funding agencies' preferences (or legislative charge) and the scientific activity that university and industry researchers perform. These linkages relate to the purposes for which funds are made available, thereby affecting the direction and regulation of scientific research as well as specific protocols for military R&D.

In a column published just when the anti-fracking hysteria was peaking, I asked, "Is Regulatory Science an Oxymoron?" At the conclusion I posed a couple of questions:

Why is it that environmentalists and environmental agency bureaucrats can always gin up studies that show that any activity they oppose and/or want to regulate is dangerous to the environment? On the other hand, why is it that energy producers and energy agency bureaucrats can gin up studies that suggest that the benefits of any activity they favor outweigh the costs?

My tentative answer: Regulatory science is an oxymoron.

In any case, the foregoing is not meant endorse any of the candidates nominated by Pruitt to serve on the EPA's scientific advisory board. Each will need a case-by-case evaluation; avoiding both government shills and industry shills is a good idea. But Pruitt's ruling that researchers dependent on agency funding should not serve on EPA advisory committees is not self-evidently wrong.