In the latest blow to the integrity of the science used by government agencies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) dismissed nearly all of the members of its Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) this week. The board, which reviews and advises EPA’s internal research departments on their scientific methodology, was already understaffed.
On Tuesday, E&E News, an environmental news outlet, obtained an email from Robert Kavlock, acting head of EPA’s Office of Research and Development, saying that BOSC members whose three-year appointments expire in August will not get renewed.
Environmental advocates had been concerned about the fate of the BOSC for some time. This week’s highly unusual action comes on the heels of EPA’s decision in May not to renew the appointments of nine of the BOSC executive committee’s 18 members. (Historically, BOSC members have been renewed for a second three-year term as a matter of course, and Kavlock had already told the nine members they would be reappointed.) When the May announcement came out, there were already several vacancies on the executive board. May’s dismissals left just five committee members.
Now, the the BOSC executive committee will be further reduced to just three members. Thirty-eight scientists on the subcommittees the board oversees will also receive pink slips, leaving only 11.
The scientific community was deeply concerned by the EPA’s first round of BOSC dismissals, especially in light of President Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s climate science denial and large proposed cuts to scientific research in Trump’s budget proposal. An EPA spokesperson told The New York Times that they hoped to replace BOSC members with more scientists from regulated industries, which many interpreted as an effort to politicize the scientific research that informs regulations. Two members of the BOSC Sustainable and Healthy Communities Subcommittee resigned in protest of the May dismissals, noting that their subcommittee chairs, who had not been renewed, had performed their jobs flawlessly.
“My concern is having rigorous scientists, engineers and researchers who are in a good position to advise other researchers,” Carlos Martin, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’ and one of the two subcommittee members to resign, told BillMoyers.com last month.
“That methodological quality may not be secure,” he added.
It certainly isn’t secure now. To not renew the carefully vetted members leaves vacancies that will take months or years to fill. This latest move leaves the BOSC completely unable to function.
BOSC Chairperson Deb Swackhamer, a professor of science, technology and public policy at the University of Minnesota, told BillMoyers.com last month that she hoped the empty positions would be filled quickly. Instead, she and nearly all her colleagues will be let go.
She responded to the latest news in an email to BillMoyers.com, writing:
This was not unexpected, given the non-renewals of the nine executive committee members of BOSC that was covered in the news in early May. But I was hoping that they would not proceed with such a sweeping dismissal of the subcommittees, because now the work that BOSC does will come to a complete halt.
Given the time it takes to vet and appoint new members and bring them up to speed, and schedule meetings, I don’t think there will be any activity by BOSC for a good six months to a year. And that is assuming the structure of BOSC remains the same. It is a shame, as this coming year will be a crucial time for [EPA Office of Research and Development, which the BOSC advises], as it faces hard choices in the case of proposed budget cuts, and BOSC could have been useful to help guide those choices.
I also worry that should EPA continue to move in the direction of being industry friendly, and put pro-industry people (rather than independent scientists) on the BOSC, it will damage science integrity at the agency overall, and politicize the appointment of science advisers to a degree not seen in my experience.
Science is the bedrock of EPA policy, and external independent advice by BOSC to guide and continually improve the research at EPA is critical to its mission. I am concerned that this will also impact the competitiveness of EPA science and the high regard it has in the world.
But while some of the previously dismissed BOSC executive committee members said they would not apply for reappointment, Swackhamer said she will. Her fate, like the BOSC itself and much else, is now in Pruitt’s hands.