This week, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt made an unprecedented move. On Tuesday, Pruitt announced that he would be blocking scientists who have received EPA grants from the agency's science advisory board. Already, half a dozen scientists and academics have been stripped of their advisory positions.
It gets worse.
According to Pruitt, it was the Bible - not science - that ultimately guided his decision.
"In the book of Joshua there is a story about Joshua leading the people of Israel into the promised land after Moses passed away," said Pruitt on Tuesday.
"And Joshua says to the people of Israel choose this day whom you're going to serve. And I would say to you this is sort of like the 'Joshua Principle' that as it relates to grants to this agency, you are going to have to choose either service on the committee to provide counsel to us in an independent fashion or you can choose grants, but you cannot do both."
Pruitt's statements make clear his anti-science agenda. He is essentially forcing scientists to choose who they will serve: the EPA or science itself. Apparently, with this administration, you cannot do both.
Pruitt argues that if a scientist has received an EPA grant they cannot serve as an independent advisor because they will be inherently conflicted. Yet Pruitt has no such hang-up when it comes to industry interest. The decision does not block industry experts from serving on these advisory boards. In fact, many argue that getting rid of the scientists on these committees will allow more room for industry representation on the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), and the Science Advisory Board (SAB).
If Pruitt replaces respected experts with industry-tied, conflicted and unqualified individuals, he will undercut the vital role that science plays in protecting Americans, says the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
"These grants don't come with strings—they're meant to help promote the best independent science in a variety of fields," said Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at UCS.
"The suggestion that federal research grants would conflict with advisory board work is frankly dishonest. Pruitt is turning the idea of 'conflict of interest' on its head—he claims federal research grants should exclude a scientist from an EPA advisory board but industry funding shouldn't."
But not everyone is so critical. Representative Lamar Smith has praised the decision. In the past, Smith sponsored a bill that would have required no SAB panel members to receive "current grants or contracts from the Environmental Protection Agency and shall not apply for a grant or contract for 3 years following the end of that member's service on the Board."
After Pruitt's announcement on Tuesday, Representative Smith had the chance to speak.
"Today's announcement shows that we have an administrator with common sense, commitment and courage," said Smith.
"For eight years, the EPA has had science boards filled with members who have had conflicts of interest. It's impossible for these boards to be fair and balanced in their advice and their decisions when many board members are receiving grants and funds from the EPA."
The EPA's advisory boards represent a scientific peer-review system specific to the agency. Many are worried that if scientists with expertise in environmental research are excluded from this system, the advisory boards will not be able to do their job effectively or objectively.
The CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Rush Holt denounced the decision in a statement.
"Science and the use of science in evidence-based policymaking cannot thrive when policymakers use politics as a pretext to attack scientific objectivity," he said.
"Given its desire to limit expert perspectives and the role of scientific information, we question whether the EPA can continue to pursue its core mission to protect human health and the environment."
The Washington Post reports that they have seen a list of the expected appointees - and it doesn't look good. According to the report, the list contains several experts who have "a history of critiquing the science and economics underpinning tighter environmental regulations."
Pruitt's final appointments will be made public next week.