A bill introduced on Friday by a ranking member of the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee seeks to reform the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) Science Advisory Board (SAB) and its sub-panels to deal with concerns about “balance, impartiality, independence, and public participation.”

The EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2012 (H.R. 6564), introduced by Chair of the Science, Space, and Technology Committee Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas) and fellow committee members Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), Andy Harris (R-Md.), and Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) seeks, among its key aspects, to strengthen public participation and improve the process for selecting expert advisors, expand transparency requirements, and limit non-scientific policy advice to the board.

“The need for high quality, independent scientific advice from the Science Advisory Board has never been more important, as President Obama’s EPA pursues sweeping new regulations based on controversial scientific assertions and conclusions,” said Rep. Hall. 

Established by Congress in 1978, the SAB plays a fundamental role in reviewing the scientific information that form the basis of EPA regulatory decisions; Congress also gave the board a broad mandate to advise the EPA on technical matters. As well as reviewing guidelines governing use of scientific and technical information in regulatory decisions, the board advises the EPA on broad scientific matters in science, technology, social, and economic issues. Most preliminary work of the board is done by subcommittees or panels focused on various environmental science topics before being sent to the SAB for discussion and deliberation.

But the bill’s sponsors allege, citing the Congressional Research Service, that almost 60% of the members of EPA’s standing scientific advisory panels directly received National Center for Environmental Research grants from the agency since 2000. “These advisors served as investigators for grants representing hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars. And the research they are being asked to independently review is often directly related to the grants they received,” the lawmakers said in a statement.

Other complaints about the SAB’s practices involved a lack of private sector expertise, despite an existing statutory requirement that membership “be fairly balanced in terms of the points of view represented.”  Public participation is also limited during most SAB meetings, and virtually no ability exists for interested parties to comment on the scope of SAB reviews, the bill’s sponsors said.

H.R. 6564 seeks to improve the diversity of membership of the SAB and its subpanels by reinforcing peer review requirements regarding balance and independence and reducing potential conflicts of interest by requiring enhanced disclosure of members’ financial relationships relevant to board activities. It also requires opportunities for dissenting panelists to make their views known and requires communication of uncertainties in scientific findings and conclusions. Finally, it limits “non-scientific policy advice and recommendations, while requiring explicit disclosure of such advice when SAB feels compelled to provide it,” the lawmakers said.

Sources: POWERnews, House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, EPA

—Sonal Patel, Senior Writer (@POWERmagazine)