New EPA rules force 2 Iowa State professors to leave an advisory committee

Source: By Austin Cannon, Ames Tribune • Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2018

Late last week, two Iowa State University professors became the latest scientists to be dismissed from an Environmental Protection Agency committee, months after the federal agency announced new rules for those serving on its advisory panels.

In a Facebook post Sunday, Catherine Kling, the Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences at ISU, wrote that she had been fired from the Agricultural Science Committee, an advisory subcommittee of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB). The board and its committees are filled with scientists who give scientific advice to the agency when asked.

Matthew Helmers, who holds the dean’s professorship at ISU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, confirmed Wednesday that he had also left the committee.

Sitting in her office on Monday, Kling said it her dismissal wasn’t much of a surprise. The EPA, under Administrator Scott Pruitt, issued new rules on Oct. 31. One of them bars scientists serving on the agency’s advisory committees from receiving EPA grant money — a criteria both Kling and Helmers fall under.

When he announced the changes, Pruitt said he wanted the EPA to get its advice free of any conflicts of interest, noting that committee members were receiving millions in EPA grant money while also advising the EPA on science in recent years.

“Our focus should be sound science, not political science,” Pruitt said, according to the New York Times. “We want to ensure independence.”

The agency began dismissing scientists. Last week, it was Kling’s turn. She had the choice: stay on the Agricultural Science Committee — which hasn’t convened since Kling was appointed a year and a half ago — or leave the research she’s doing on the value of water-quality improvements with a $800,000 EPA grant.

“The idea of it being a choice was really kind of odd,” she said.

She and Helmers both chose to stick with their research, though both are still listed as members on the Agricultural Science Committee’s web page. Helmers will continue working with his EPA grant on wetlands development.

“My service is no longer needed on that committee,” he said.

Kling said it wasn’t a “tragedy,” that she would no longer serve on the committee that never met. She wouldn’t miss the hourly pay rate from it either, but she said she’s concerned with the broader implications of the rule that forced her off the committee.

“It’s not this specific committee, and it’s not me, specifically,” she said. “There are many good environmental economists who could serve on these committees. It’s not about either of those things. It’s about what appears, to me, to be a very arbitrary rule, and an argument about conflict of interest that is simply illogical when you’re using it to keep academics off advisory committees and promote industry employees.”

For his part, Helmers said he had no comment on the process that removed him from the advisory committee.

Kling said that while she can’t read the minds in the Trump Administration, “there does seem to be a strong push away from evidence-based science to inform policy-making. And this would certainly be consistent with that.”

As for Pruitt’s concerns over conflicts of interest, Kling said members of the advisory committees were already subjected to strict conflict-of-interest rules that included submitting financial disclosures. People would regularly recuse themselves if needed, she added.

She said she would be much more worried about “industry” scientists joining the SAB’s different advisory boards, finding themselves in the position of giving the EPA scientific advice on how to potentially regulate the industries they represent. Since the change, scientists from Phillips 66 and ExxonMobil and the Dow Chemical Company have joined academics on the SAB.

Though she acknowledged there are good industry scientists, that struck Kling as a bigger conflict interest. She said ISU wouldn’t be affected negatively by any sort of science advice a committee gives, unlike a private company.

“The logic does not seem internally consistent,” she said.

Kling has served on the SAB and its advisory committees off and on since 1998 under Republican and Democratic administrations and sometimes while researching with EPA funding. For the most part, she said, a lot of the day-to-day work at the EPA didn’t change with who the administrator of boss was.

She described herself as someone who’s not political, and she said she didn’t know if the new rule taking her off the committee was a political decision. But she was unsure why it was necessary.

“I don’t get it,” she said.