EPA Releases Policy Regarding Independence of its Scientific Advisory Committees

On October 31, EPA released a one-page directive and a more detailed memorandum governing the independence of its various scientific advisory committees. The basic principles announced by the agency are as follows:

  1. Strengthen Member Independence: No member of an EPA advisory committee can be a current recipient of an EPA grant or otherwise in a position that would reap direct benefit from such a grant. This does not apply to state, tribal or local government agencies that receive EPA grants.
  2. Increase State, Tribal and Local Government Participation: Committee balance should include participation from state, tribal and local governments, consistent with the committee’s purpose and function.
  3. Enhance Geographic Diversity: Committees should be balanced with members from different states and EPA regions, with an emphasis on members from historically underrepresented areas.
  4. Promote Fresh Perspectives: Committee membership should be rotated regularly.

As discussed in the EPA memorandum, much of this is driven by the longstanding requirement in the Federal Advisory Committee Act that advisory committees must be “fairly balanced” as to scientific points of view. Enforcement of this requirement has often been difficult in the past, as judicial remedies have largely been ineffective.

As also discussed in the memorandum, the composition of some advisory committees, such as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC), is dictated by statute. In most cases, however, the statutory requirements (for CASAC, a state regulator, a public health expert, an industry scientist, etc.) leave ample room for application of these principles within the statutory confines.

The EPA materials do not address whether members of current committees can be replaced before their terms expire. Another question is whether the principles apply only to committee members or also to “consultants” who are not official committee members. For example, the current CASAC PM review panel has 27 members, only six of whom are official CASAC members.

With respect to most current committees, it seems unlikely that these principles will be used to displace current members. However, to the extent that a current member advances a position believed to be scientifically unsound, opponents will be free to argue that the advice should be discounted if inconsistent with these principles. Further, the membership of many key committees will be up for renewal prior to the 2020 election. For example, EPA is currently seeking members for the new TSCA scientific review committee, and the current CASAC PM panel expires in 2018, well before EPA is expected to complete the current PM standard review.