Drexel dean, former EPA science advisory chair, blasts new Pruitt 'ethics' rule

Ana Diez Roux, dean of Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, has a wide — and deep — list of credentials that allowed her to not only sit on one of the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) top science advisory boards, but to chair it for the last three years.

Now she’s speaking out against EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s directive this week barring scientists who receive federal grants from serving on agency advisory panels. Pruitt said he was issuing it to ensure advisers are “independent and free from any real, apparent, or potential interference with their ability to serve as a committee member.”

The new directive sent a squall through the scientific community.

Defenders of the directive say the panels had strayed from their mission and into advocacy. But Diez Roux believes the new directive is simply to pack the panels with those sympathetic to Trump administration beliefs.  Opponents of the directive note there is no mention of barring panel members who might be receiving money or grants from private industry.

“I think it’s clear that this is a strategy to replace scientists with other people on the panel that the administration perceives are more anti-regulation,” Diez Roux says.

Diez Roux served as chairwoman of the seven-member Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) until her term expired Sept. 30. She was trained as a medical doctor and also has a Ph.D.

CASAC’s duties include providing expert advice and exhaustively reviewing standards for pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, particulate matter, and ozone.

Her replacement as chair of the panel is Louis Anthony Cox, who has a Ph.D. from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and specializes in risk analysis. Cox has already testified before a congressional subcommittee that advisories to EPA on an ozone rule were “unwarranted and exaggerated.”

Liz Bowman, an EPA spokeswoman, defended Pruitt’s directive in an email.

“Administrator Pruitt issued a directive Tuesday to ensure independence, geographic diversity and integrity in EPA science committees,” the email stated. “Membership on these three boards consists of qualified scientists who will help strengthen public confidence in EPA science. Those with current grants can decide if they would like to continue serving and separating themselves from the grants, as their terms expire.”

Bowman also stressed that Diez Roux was not being forced from the panel. Rather, Bowman said Diez Roux had served the maximum allowed six years and her term was up.

Diez Roux noted that there is already a “very well-established process for identifying conflict of interest.”

“There’s no credible rationale for the argument that scientists who receive federal funding would be biased,” she says.

Members of advisory boards have ethics requirements that state they have to undergo ethics training and must file a financial disclosure form.

Further, Diez Roux said, members must submit detailed statements prior to every meeting about potential conflicts. If, for example, any members’ names are on a research paper being discussed, they have to recuse themselves.

“I think in the long term this is going to affect the quality of the scientific advice the agency receives,” she says. “The people who have grants are some of the most knowledgeable scientists in these areas. By default, you’re excluding exactly the type of people you want.”