On Honesty and ‘Honest Brokers’ in Government Science


Today’s E&E News has an interesting article about Richard Yamada, a Ph.D. mathematician who is the key official helping Administrator Scott Pruitt reshape science policy at the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The article quotes Sen. Thomas Carper (D-DE) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who have harsh words for Yamada and his boss.

Democratic Sens. Tom Carper of Delaware and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island sent a document to the Government Accountability Office detailing Yamada’s connection to the initiative.

“Political appointees at EPA under Administrator Pruitt are disregarding normal procedures and advice from career staff,” the lawmakers wrote, referring to Yamada. “By doing so, they are avoiding the procedures put in place by the agency to ensure compliance with federal law and risk undermining the integrity and impartiality of these boards.”

I would be tempted to dismiss their criticism as unselfconscious irony if deliberate misdirection were not the more likely explanation.

Every combatant in the nation’s major regulatory battles either is or has a dog in the fight. In such controversies, there are no honest brokers—i.e., persons who have no interest or stake in the outcome. EPA career staff are stakeholders. So are lawmakers like Carper and Whitehouse.

To be sure, some of the participants are honest people. However, they all have one thing in common—they do not pretend to be honest brokers.

If this simple insight were more widely shared, there would be less flimflam in the public square, because it would be harder for partisans to pose as impartial representatives of “The Science.”

Al Gore’s book and film, An Inconvenient Truth, exemplifies the rhetorical trickery I’m talking about. Gore presents himself as an apolitical Mr. Science and then, sometimes in the same breath, invokes the moral authority of science to trash his opponents as coal- and oil-industry shills. He relishes a famous quote by Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” (AIT, pp. 266-67).

Well, those who live in glass houses should not throw stones. The greenhouse gravy train feeds legions of scientists, advocacy groups, energy-rationing profiteers, regulatory bureaucrats, eco-litigators, and progressive politicians. It is difficult to get a man to question climate alarm when his federal grant, direct mail income, industrial policy privilege, regulatory power, prosecutorial pillage, or political career depends on his not questioning it.

Returning to the issue at hand, Senators Carper and Whitehouse complain that, under Dr. Yamada’s direction, EPA appointed “Dr. Tony Cox, a private consultant who had previously done work for ExxonMobil, the American Chemistry Council, and the American Petroleum Institute,” to serve as chair of the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC). The senators note that Cox has “a possible financial conflict of interest” and “a possible appearance of a lack of impartiality.” They also fret that Mr. Pruitt appointed Cox instead of “independent scientists” preferred by agency “career scientists and lawyers.” They further note that “Normally, the Administrator follows career staff’s recommendations.”

In a recent op-ed, Steve Milloy of JunkScience.com handily debunks such criticism. Pruitt and Yamada are not attempting to replace “independent” with “conflicted” science advisors but to ensure that EPA’s critics, not just its clients, have a voice in the agency’s advisory committees. The “normal” arrangement is not only conflicted, it is also one-sided. Milloy explains:  

Pruitt’s first move last fall was to reform the agency’s practice of appointing its own university research grantees to its science advisory boards so they would be in position to rubber-stamp agency actions. This practice contravened federal law that requires these boards to be made up of unbiased scientists.

In one example, a 26-member board had 24 EPA grantees who had received more than $200 million in research grants from the agency. These scientists were “reviewing” either their own research or the research of their colleagues. It was pal review, not peer review.

So, Pruitt changed the EPA’s policy. Researchers now must choose whether they want to receive research grants from the EPA or serve on its advisory boards. But they can’t do both.

Pruitt also appointed new members to some of these boards. For the first time in at least 20 years, individuals were appointed who are prominent critics of how the EPA uses science—including the chairmen of the two most important science advisory boards.

Pruitt rightly recognizes these boards are advisory in nature and he is not bound to accept their advice. As such, Pruitt should be commended for wanting to get different points of view from the members of his advisory boards. In contrast, the Obama EPA boards were largely just echo chambers of a single point of view.

When Senators Carper and Whitehead demand that agency advisors be “impartial” and “independent,” what they really mean is that all advisors should agree with them. They seek to marginalize and thus effectively silence experts whose views differ from theirs. Not coincidentally, Sen. Whitehouse is famous for demanding RICO investigations of companies and organizations that do not toe his party line on climate science and policy.

Democracy is an adversarial process. It relies on the marketplace of ideas to sort out the claims and counterclaims of rival interests, parties, and movements. Politicians and activists who invoke “honest broker” status for themselves, their party, or ideological faction—and assert or insinuate that only their opponents are conflicted—are not honest. Their increasingly frequent attempt to use the prosecutorial powers of the state to chill debate is just plain cheating.