EPA's Science Advisory Board Panels:

Improved Policies and Procedures Needed to Ensure Independence and Balance

GAO-01-536: Published: Jun 12, 2001. Publicly Released: Jul 16, 2001.

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This report reviews whether the policies and procedures of the Environmental Protection Agency's Science Advisory Board ensure that (1) its peer review panelists are independent and the panels are properly balanced and (2) the public is sufficiently informed about the points of view represented on the panels. GAO found that the policies and procedures used by the staff office to ensure the independence of the Board's peer reviewers and the balancing of viewpoints have limitations that reduce their effectiveness. The staff office has not systematically requested information that is needed to assess the independence and overall balance of viewpoints represented on the panel--such as previous public positions the panelists have taken on the matter being reviewed--until the first meeting, when the panelists have already been chosen. Furthermore, conflicts of interest may not be identified and mitigated in a timely manner. GAO also found that the staff office's policies and procedures for providing the public with information on the backgrounds of the Board's peer review panelists do not adequately inform the public about the points of view represented on the panels.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To better ensure that peer review panels are independent and reflect an appropriate balance of viewpoints and expertise, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Science Advisory Board to develop policies and procedures that better identify and mitigate potential conflicts of interest and support the development of balanced panels. Such changes should include developing criteria for and guidance on the process to be used to achieve the proper balance of viewpoints and expertise on peer review panels.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of GAO's recommendation, the Board has developed policies and procedures described in the brochure "Overview of Panel Formation Process at the EPA Science Advisory Board." In addition, the Board has developed a standard process for panel formation that includes a requirement for a "Documentation of Panel Formation Determinations" which documents decisions about conflicts of interest, balance of viewpoints, and expertise in forming each panel. These policies and procedures will better ensure that peer review panels are independent and reflect an appropriate balance of viewpoints and expertise.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that peer review panels are independent and reflect an appropriate balance of viewpoints and expertise, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Science Advisory Board to develop policies and procedures that better identify and mitigate potential conflicts of interest and support the development of balanced panels. Such changes should include developing, training that clearly identifies for the panelists the conflict-of-interest requirements that apply to them, addresses impartiality, and identifies the background information the staff office needs from the panelists to assess #(1) the appropriateness of their participation on specific panels and (2) the balance of viewpoints and expertise on the panels themselves.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of GAO's recommendation, the Board has developed and is using CD-based conflict-of-interest training for panelists, a new process for panel formation at the Board (documented in the brochure "Overview of Panel Formation process at the EPA Science Advisory Board"), and a new confidential disclosure form for special government employees serving on federal advisory committees at EPA that is designed to capture needed information to evaluate conflicts of interest. In addition, Board staff are following a standard protocol to gather, assess, and record information related to the balance of viewpoints and expertise on panels.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that peer review panels are independent and reflect an appropriate balance of viewpoints and expertise, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Science Advisory Board to develop policies and procedures that better identify and mitigate potential conflicts of interest and support the development of balanced panels. Such changes should include obtaining and evaluating relevant background information on peer review panel candidates before appointing panel members. The evaluation should include explicitly discussing with potential panelists (1) items not adequately reported in the confidential financial disclosure form as well as items reported that could present conflicts of interest, (2) other information relevant to assessing impartiality, such as research conducted and previous public statements or positions on the matter being reviewed, interest of the employer or clients in the matter, participation in legal proceedings, work for chemical companies, and prior or current research grants that could be affected by the matter, and (3) asking if the individual has any potential conflicts of interest related to the specific panel being established. Further, pertinent information obtained from discussions with panelists should be documented.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of GAO's recommendation, the Board has established a standard process for panel formations that include a requirement for a "Documentation of Panel Formation Determinations" which documents decisions about conflict of interest and balance of viewpoints and expertise in forming each panel. This document also includes evaluation of responses to questions asked of prospective panelists. Such questions include asking the prospective panelist whether (1) they know of any reason they might be unable to provide impartial advice on the matter before the panel or whether there is a reason their impartiality might be questioned, (2) previous involvement with the review documents under consideration, including authorship, collaboration with the authors, or previous peer review functions, and (3) previous public statements on the issue. This information is evaluated during the review of confidential financial disclosure forms.

    Recommendation: To better ensure that peer review panels are independent and reflect an appropriate balance of viewpoints and expertise, the Administrator, EPA, should direct the Science Advisory Board to develop policies and procedures that better identify and mitigate potential conflicts of interest and support the development of balanced panels. Such changes should include determining whether each panel will be reviewing a "particular matter" before selecting the panel kin order to identify the financial conflict-of-interest requirements, if any, to which the panelists will be subject.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of GAO's recommendation, the Board has taken a number of steps to address this concern, specifically, (1) conducting training sessions to allow Board designated federal officers to develop and demonstrate skill in making the appropriate distinctions between issues with and without conflict-of-interest, (2) requiring the Board's designated federal officials to determine and document whether proposed projects for Board peer review concern "particular matters" that may involve potential conflict-of-interest, and (3) requiring the Board staff director to review and approve these determinations in each instance.

    Recommendation: The Administrator, EPA, should direct the Science Advisory Board to provide consistent, relevant information to the public about panelists to enable the public to sufficiently understand the points of view represented on a panel and ensure that this information is properly recorded in the meeting minutes or transcripts. In addition, the Board should consider allowing the public the opportunity to comment on proposed panels before final selection decision are made.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As a result of GAO's recommendation, EPA's Science Advisory Board (1) approved new policies and procedures that allow the public to review a "short list" of candidates selected by the Board's staff for a specific panel, and to comment on the appropriateness of including any of these candidates on the panel, and (2) contacted more than 20 non-governmental organizations to assess the information needs and recommendations regarding the backgrounds of panelists, determined what information EPA may legally share with the public, placed information about panel members on its web site, and expanded the information that is made available to the public at public meetings and including it in the minutes of the meeting. These new procedures will help the Board ensure that its panels are balanced in terms of expertise and viewpoints.

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