EPA's Science Advisory Board:

Improved Procedures Needed to Process Congressional Requests for Scientific Advice

GAO-15-500: Published: Jun 4, 2015. Publicly Released: Jun 4, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) procedures for processing congressional requests for scientific advice from the Science Advisory Board (SAB) do not ensure compliance with the Environmental Research, Development, and Demonstration Authorization Act of 1978 (ERDDAA) because these procedures are incomplete. For example, they do not clearly outline how the EPA Administrator, the SAB staff office, and others are to handle a congressional committee's request. While the procedures reflect EPA's responsibility to exercise general management controls over the SAB and all its federal advisory committees under the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), including keeping such committees free from outside influence, they do not fully account for the specific access that designated congressional committees have to the SAB under ERDDAA. For example, EPA's policy documents do not establish how EPA will determine which questions would be taken up by the SAB. EPA officials told GAO that in responding to congressional requests, EPA follows the same process that it would apply to internal requests for questions to the SAB, including considering whether the questions are science or policy driven or are important to science and the agency. However, under ERDDAA, the SAB is required to provide requested scientific advice to select committees, regardless of EPA's judgment. By clearly documenting how to handle congressional requests received under ERDDAA consistent with federal standards of internal control, EPA can provide reasonable assurance that its staff process responses consistently and in accordance with the law.

The Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) has provided certain types of advice related to the review of national ambient air quality standards (NAAQS), but has not provided others. Under the Clean Air Act, CASAC is to review air quality criteria and existing NAAQS every 5 years and advise EPA of any adverse public health, welfare, social, economic, or energy effects that may result from various strategies for attainment and maintenance of NAAQS. An EPA official stated that CASAC has carried out its role in reviewing the air quality criteria and the NAAQS, but CASAC has never provided advice on adverse social, economic, or energy effects related to NAAQS because EPA has never asked CASAC to do so. In a June 2014 letter to the EPA Administrator, CASAC indicated it would review such effects at the agency's request.

EPA has policies and guidance to help ensure that its federal advisory committees—including the SAB and CASAC—maintain their independence from the agency when the advisory committees perform their work. Under General Services Administration regulations for implementing FACA, an agency must develop procedures to ensure that its federal advisory committees are independent from the agency when rendering judgments. EPA policies and guidance to help ensure the independence of its federal advisory committees include guidance specifically for the SAB and general requirements that apply to all of EPA's federal advisory committees, including the SAB and CASAC. For example, EPA's Scientific Integrity Policy states that EPA prohibits managers and other agency leadership from intimidating or coercing scientists to alter scientific data, findings or professional opinions, or inappropriately influencing scientific advisory boards.

Why GAO Did This Study

EPA formulates rules to protect the environment and public health. To enhance the quality and credibility of such rules, EPA obtains advice and recommendations from the SAB and CASAC—two federal advisory committees that review the scientific and technical basis for EPA decision-making. ERDDAA requires the SAB to provide both the EPA Administrator and designated congressional committees with scientific advice as requested. Amendments to the Clean Air Act established CASAC to, among other things, provide advice to the Administrator on NAAQS.

GAO was asked to look into how the SAB and CASAC are fulfilling their statutory obligations in providing such advice. This report examines (1) the extent to which EPA procedures for processing congressional requests to the SAB ensure compliance with ERDDAA; (2) the extent to which CASAC has provided advice related to NAAQS; and (3) policies EPA has to ensure that the SAB and CASAC maintain their independence when performing their work. GAO reviewed relevant federal regulations and agency documents, and interviewed EPA, SAB, and other relevant officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that to better ensure compliance with ERDDAA, EPA take steps to improve its procedures for processing congressional committee requests to the SAB for advice. EPA agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact J. Alfredo Gómez at (202) 512-3841 or gomezj@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2016, EPA finalized procedures for reviewing congressional committee requests for advice from the Science Advisory Board (SAB). The procedures describe the process and criteria for evaluating such requests, including requests for scientific advice unrelated to an existing SAB project or charge question.

    Recommendation: To better ensure compliance with ERDDAA when handling congressional requests for scientific advice from EPA's SAB, the EPA Administrator should clarify in the charter when it is renewed which offices should receive and process congressional requests.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2016, EPA finalized procedures for reviewing congressional committee requests for advice from the Science Advisory Board (SAB). According to EPA officials, the agency will also make modifications to the SAB charter to be consistent with the process. When the charter is updated, we will review it to determine whether clarifying language included meets the intent of this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To better ensure compliance with ERDDAA when handling congressional requests for scientific advice from EPA's SAB, the EPA Administrator should document procedures for reviewing congressional committee requests to determine which questions should be taken up by the SAB and criteria for evaluating such requests.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In September 2016, EPA finalized procedures for reviewing congressional committee requests for advice from the Science Advisory Board (SAB) to determine which questions should be taken up by the SAB. These procedures, however, do not ensure compliance with ERDDAA because they fail to recognize that under ERDDAA, the SAB is required to provide requested scientific advice to select committees. The procedures lay out a process and criteria for reviewing congressional requests for SAB advice which include: 1) the scope of EPA's legal authorities; 2) whether the requested advice is related to the science and technical aspect of the environmental issue, rather than a question of public policy; and 3) EPA priorities and strategic plan. The relevant criterion for determining whether the SAB should take up a question, however, is whether it is scientific in nature. The other criteria may be relevant to EPA's prioritization of requests to the SAB in light of the SAB's limited resources.

    Recommendation: To better ensure compliance with ERDDAA when handling congressional requests for scientific advice from EPA's SAB, the EPA Administrator should clarify in policy documents when it is and when it is not appropriate for the EPA Administrator to forward advice to the requesting committee.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2016, EPA finalized procedures for reviewing congressional committee requests for advice from the Science Advisory Board (SAB). The procedures state that any SAB reports that provide advice in response to a congressional request will be forwarded by the Administrator to the congressional requestor.

    Recommendation: To better ensure compliance with ERDDAA when handling congressional requests for scientific advice from EPA's SAB, the EPA Administrator should specify in policy documents how the SAB should respond to a congressional committee's request for scientific advice unrelated to an existing EPA charge question.

    Agency Affected: Environmental Protection Agency

 

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