Scientists push back against a bill that would pervert the whole concept of conflict of interest

Richard Denison, Ph.D., is a Senior Scientist.

This week, two letters – one signed by 13 prominent public health scientists and the other signed by the heads of 8 major national environmental organizations – were sent to the House Science Committee voicing strong opposition to H.R. 6564, the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2012.

The sponsors of this legislation claim that it is needed to “enhance transparency and limit conflicts of interest” on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Science Advisory Board (SAB) and its panels.  In fact, it would do the precise opposite.  Here’s how the scientists’ letter summarizes the impacts that would arise from passage of the bill:   

“This proposed legislation would only serve to reverse progress in bringing the best scientific advice and analysis to EPA.  The consequence would be to deprive EPA of needed scientific advice on the most complex and pressing environmental health problems of our day.” 

Among the most perverse provisions of this bill (and there are many) are two that would turn the very notion of conflict of interest on its head.  One would limit scientists that receive competitive grants through EPA’s extramural research program from serving on the SAB or its panels – claiming that such funding constitutes a conflict of interest.  The scientists’ letter goes directly at that provision:

“The underlying idea that scientists who obtain funding from EPA for any project have conflicts about all EPA matters is baseless and reflects a misunderstanding of who we are as scientists and our role in society.”

Another provision is even more perverse:  It would reverse longstanding conflict-of-interest policy and practice followed by virtually every authoritative scientific body in the world – including the National Academy of Sciences, the International Agency for Research on Cancer and the World Health Organization – by allowing unfettered access of industry representatives with direct conflicts of interest to serve on the SAB and its panels, as long as their conflicts are disclosed.

Who’s behind this radical legislation?  Here’s a hint:  The American Chemistry Council (ACC), which represents the chemical manufacturing industry, couldn’t wait to express its unequivocal support, stating it “cannot overstate the importance of this bill to Americans” in a press release titled “House Science Committee Proposes Common Sense Reform To EPA Scientific Advisory Process:  Proposed Legislation Would Improve Expert Panel Selection, Limit Conflicts of Interest and Enhance Systematic Reviews.”  And ACC’s been singing the bill’s praises all over town ever since (see, e.g., slide 6 of this ACC presentation). 

Another provision of the bill, vigorously backed by ACC, would require that every hazard and risk assessment conducted by EPA undergo SAB review – a massive expansion in the scope of the work of the SAB, which is intended to serve as a source of scientific advice to the Agency on its most important activities and pressing matters.  This provision, ACC knows full well, would add years to the already overly protracted process of EPA’s completion of such assessments; it’s a tactic ACC is also seeking to employ in its ongoing efforts to tie up EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS) program, by demanding that all IRIS assessments undergo not one but two rounds of peer review by the National Academy of Sciences. 

The bill would also act on another ACC demand:  It would require a written response by the SAB to all “public” comments received and offer endless opportunities for such input – which will skew even further the ability of industry to influence the process and outcome of SAB reviews.

These delay-game tactics are especially galling, given that ACC claims to be all for EPA’s ability to promptly implement risk assessment-based safety determinations – indeed, its “10 Principles for Modernizing TSCA” specially state that “EPA should act expeditiously and efficiently in making safe use determinations” and “should complete safe use determinations within set timeframes.”  ACC simply can’t have it both ways.

False claims of support

Press releases issued by both the sponsors of the legislation and ACC claim that two recent reports, one by the Bipartisan Policy Committee (BPC) and the other by the Keystone Center’s Research Integrity Roundtable, provide support for their effort to allow conflicted industry scientists to serve on SAB panels even as they seek to exclude government-funded independent scientists. 

These reports said nothing of the sort. 

For example, the BPC report –which was co-authored by one of the scientists signing this week’s scientists letter opposing the bill – came, if anything, to the opposite conclusion, recommending that service as peer reviewers by academic scientists receiving federal dollars be strongly encouraged:  “The government could also encourage or require universities that receive federal grants to demonstrate that they were creating incentives for their faculty to participate as peer reviewers.”

Both reports also forcefully argued that those with financial conflicts of interest should be excluded from serving as peer reviewers in all but the most exceptional circumstances:

BPC:  “The desired norm for federal agencies should be to appoint advisory committees whose members are free of conflicts of interest. … The standard for allowing someone with a conflict of interest to serve on an advisory committee should be changed to the clearer and arguably more stringent policy of the National Academy of Sciences under which a conflicted expert can serve only in a situation where having a conflicted panel member is ‘unavoidable.’ …  Appointment of an individual with a conflict of interest should require a formal waiver from the appointing official. … Agencies should not appoint anyone with a conflict to serve as the chair or co-chair of a committee.  And agencies should limit the issuance of conflict waivers.”

Keystone:  “The goal of agencies should be to appoint only panelists who do not have conflicts of interest. … Waivers should be cautiously and carefully issued, and be the rare exception, not the norm.  As in the BPC report, the Roundtable suggests that the federal standard be changed to reflect the National Academy of Sciences’ standard which states that a conflicted expert can serve only if it is “unavoidable” to have a conflicted panel member. … Panelists with waivers should not be allowed to serve as panel chairs or in other leadership capacities (such as subcommittee chairs).”

This bald effort at deception by the bill sponsors and ACC was so egregious that it led the members of the Keystone Center’s Roundtable to send the House Science Committee its own letter disavowing that its report provides any support whatsoever for the bill’s provisions that would allow conflicted industry scientists to serve on SAB panels while limiting service by government-funded independent scientists.  A remarkable step toward correcting the record, especially considering that an ACC Senior Director was on the Roundtable and presumably agreed to send the letter.

This sad episode makes clear that the parallel universe that the bill’s sponsors and ACC live in – or seek to create – is not one that anyone who cares a whit about sound science, transparency and public health should ever want to encounter.

For more details and perspective on this concerning legislation, see NRDC’s Jennifer Sass’s very informative blog post.

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