The April 18 Lab Seminar was led by Edmond J. Safra Lab Fellow Sheila Kaplan. Kaplan is a journalist whose project examines the issue of institutional corruption in the the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Kaplan opened the seminar by describing the factors that contribute to EPA mission distortion and regulatory capture. One factor is the influence of industry and its lobbyists, which last year spent $886 million on lobbying, and $290 million in donations. A second factor is the issue of the “revolving door”, when individuals alternate between being employed by industry, and working for the EPA. Kaplan gave the example of Todd Stedeford, now the head of the Existing Chemicals Assessment Branch of the EPA, who was formerly an advisor to the Albemarle Corporation, the only U.S manufacturer of flame retardants--the use and safety of which are questioned in an increasing body of research.
Kaplan continued by offering some ideas for possible solutions. She suggested that in addition to enforcing the current revolving door restrictions, imposing a five-year ban on former EPA staffers communicating with or appearing before the agency; giving industry-sponsored science less weight in government deliberations than independent science, and barring EPA staffers from co-authoring papers with industry researchers; making all correspondence between lawmakers, OMB, and EPA available online to the public; and reducing EPA reliance on outside contractors.
Seminar participants debated some of these solutions, with particular attention paid to the issue of industry experts taking up positions at the EPA, and vice versa. Some wondered how it would be possible to pool intellectual capital, taking advantage of the knowledge and experience of those who have worked in industry, without contaminating the system. Participants also wondered about ways of thinking about the revolving door so as to better distinguish between benign relationships and those that should be of concern.