Robyn Wilson, associate professor of risk analysis and decision science at The Ohio State University, had served on the EPA’s Science Advisory Board for nearly two and a half years when she received a request to step down. The problem, it seemed, was the fact her research had been funded by an EPA grant.
A new directive from Scott Pruitt, the head of the agency, forbid any scientist with EPA funding from serving on the board. Wilson refused to step down or give up her funding, and, in December, joined a lawsuit in an attempt to overturn the directive.
“They’ve now basically said that ‘We’ve previously identified you as some of the best and brightest and the most capable individuals to help solve our problems, but now that we’ve identified you as of that, we don’t want your advice anymore,'" Wilson says.
The directive is an attempt, according to the EPA, to avoid conflicts of interest. Wilson says that logic seems to make sense on its face, but doesn’t pan out when you dig deeper. For one, she says there’s already extensive conflict of interest procedures in place.
“Prior to us getting involved in any sort of review of agency actions or commenting at all on even the science behind the sorts of things the agency is considering, we have to declare any conflict of interest and we can be removed from that discussion,” she says.
Wilson also says that the application of the directive is inconsistent as it doesn’t apply to government employees. And she points out that many of the people brought on to the board in the last several months have strong industry ties.
“There’s been no discussion about whether or not that is a conflict of interest: that essentially they are providing advice to an agency that regulates them and could potentially cost them a lot of money,” she says.
The complaint, filed on Dec. 21, 2017, pits Wilson and several groups against Pruitt, arguing the EPA director violated federal ethics rules requiring "uniform" ethics requirements across government agencies.
"EPA has offered no justification—rational or otherwise—for treating EPA grants as disqualifying while financial support or even employment by regulated industries is not," the complaint reads.
The EPA said it does not comment on pending litigation.
While Wilson is passionate about the issue and the lawsuit, she says ultimately it won’t make a difference for her future on the board.
“If we are successful in overturning the directive, it would probably be too late for me to the return to the board anyway, it’ll be this coming September 2018,” Wilson says. “So I really just see it as a way to protect future scientists.”
That said, she thinks that part of her purpose as an individual professor at Ohio State is to take a stand for science.
“Part of our mission as a land grant institution is to make sure that our science is used in thoughtful ways in policy and decision making and management,” she says. “And anything that prevents OSU scientists and other scientists from being able to do that is a real threat."
Editor's note: A previous version of this story incorrectly cited a separate lawsuit against the EPA directive. The information has been updated.