Are EPA Scientists In Trump’s Crosshairs?

The GOP is trying to make federal agencies more industry friendly — and many worry that that will mean using bunk science.

Are EPA Scientists In Trump's Crosshairs?

Flowers bloom outside the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters on March 16, 2017. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Anyone worried that the Trump administration will politicize or interfere with sound scientific research heard a warning shot earlier this month, when nine members of the Environmental Protection Agency’s 18-person Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) suddenly learned that they would not be offered a second three-year term. The BOSC is a group of experts that monitors and advises EPA’s internal research departments on their methodology in exchange for travel expenses and a modest honorarium.

My concern is having rigorous scientists, engineers, and researchers who are in a good position to advise other researchers. That methodological quality may not be secure.

— Carlos Martin, senior research associate, Urban Institute

According to people familiar with the process, the EPA typically offers to renew panel members for a second term, and in January, Robert Kavlock, the acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (of which BOSC is a part) told the panel’s members who were up for renewal that they could expect to stay on.

Then, on May 5, he told them that they wouldn’t be renewed after all. He did not give any reason.

“I’m not familiar with a case like this where people were not renewed for a second term,” says Genna Reed, science and policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a pro-science think tank and advocacy organization that has criticized the EPA’s move.

Anyone inclined to give the EPA the benefit of the doubt would note that the agency’s mandate for filling out the committee stipulates that “balance in work sector/employing institution and geographic distribution area is desirable.” And while renewal might historically have been automatic, the essence of a three-year term is that it can indeed end in three years, without cause. This episode could simply be a new administration getting its bearings, starting fresh and — while violating traditions — not breaking any rules.

An EPA spokesperson gave only the following emailed statement in response to a query from BillMoyers.com:

EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors serve three-year terms and are reviewed every three years. Because advisory panels like BOSC play a critical role reviewing the agency’s work, EPA will consider the hundreds of nominations through a competitive nomination process. Individuals who have previously served one term can, of course, apply through the competitive process.

But it’s also worth considering the context. This is just the latest salvo in an ongoing war between Republicans and the scientific community.

In March, the House of Representatives passed two bills on a party line vote that would attack the EPA’s fact-gathering process. One, the “HONEST Act,” would prevent the EPA from using scientific data that isn’t fully available to the public. This may sound innocent, but it is as misleading as the measure’s Orwellian name. The bill’s actual purpose is to prevent the EPA from accessing research published in journals with pay walls or owned by universities. The other bill would stack the EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) with industry flunkies. Meanwhile Trump has appointed Scott Gottlieb, a doctor on the payroll of pharmaceutical companies, to run the Food and Drug Administration.

The president’s budget proposal cuts 31 percent from the EPA, more than any other Cabinet-level agency. Those cuts would disproportionately fall on the research side of the EPA’s work. Funding for the agency’s Office of Research and Development would be halved.

The backdrop of budget cuts is part of what makes the BOSC turnover so concerning, say experts, because a politicized BOSC will likely have a say in which aspects of the EPA’s research are cut and which remain.

Earlier this month, two members of the EPA BOSC’s Sustainable and Healthy Communities Subcommittee resigned, sending a letter in protest, because the subcommittee’s chairs, Robert Richardson and Courtney Flint — an environmental economist at Michigan State and a professor of natural resource sociology at Utah State University, respectively — were among those not renewed. (BOSC members chair subcommittees, which have more members who serve only on them.)

“They weren’t renewed, even though they were perfectly capable and they were excellent co-chairs,” says Carlos Martin, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center. “My concern is having rigorous scientists, engineers and researchers who are in a good position to advise other researchers. That methodological quality may not be secure.”

Although the rest of that subcommittee and the other subcommittees are still intact, the BOSC itself is almost empty. In addition to the nine new vacancies, it has four unfilled seats, due to other members having recently finished their terms, leaving only five current members.

“It’s going to be difficult for the committee to function with those numbers,” observes Flint, a professor of natural resource sociology at Utah State University and one of the nine BOSC members who was not renewed. “It’s hard to reach a quorum of 18 with only five members.”

A cynic might say dysfunctionality is actually the point, a step in Trump adviser Steve Bannon’s planned “deconstruction of the administrative state.” The panel’s next meeting isn’t slated until August, so perhaps some or all of these seats will be filled by then, although past members say their vetting process took months or even years. “We are hopeful things will move forward in a timely fashion,” Deb Swackhamer, chair of the BOSC’s Executive Committee, told BillMoyers.com.

In the past, membership on the BOSC came through internal nominations. Going forward, the EPA says, there will be an open application process and former members are welcome to apply. EPA spokesman J.P. Freire told The New York Times that the agency hopes to increase geographic diversity and representation from a wider array of universities.

One line of Freire’s in The Times, however, stuck in the scientific community’s craw: “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” he said, referring to the EPA’s climate science-denying administrator Scott Pruitt.

To critics, seeking input from regulated industries is a politicized approach because BOSC reviews only research methodology, not pollution regulations. Saying it needs industry perspectives is sort of like saying industry should have input into the arrangement of the periodic table.

“I think it’s missing the point of the Board of Scientific Counselors, which is selected to represent an array of scientific expertise,” says Flint. “It’s not meant to represent sectors [of the economy]; it’s meant to represent domains of science.”

A weakened or dysfunctional BOSC means a weakened or dysfunctional EPA research process. And that, in turn, could mean environmental degradation. For example, Flint’s committee focused on local communities. So, she says, “if there’s an oil spill, first responders want to know what products they should use with certain types of fuels or contaminants. If they don’t have the right tools, that could compromise the response.”

But that’s a worst-case scenario and one that will be avoided if the EPA replenishes the committee with credible, unbiased experts. Says Flint, “I hope the country can get back to having a democratic process where experts and scientists can be reviewing agencies’ work.”

Ben Adler

Ben Adler, a journalist in New York City, is a former reporter for Grist, The Nation, Newsweek and Politico. He also has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, The New Republic and The American Prospect, among other publications. Follow him on Twitter: @badler.