June 20, 2017 at 7:14 PM
The Environmental Protection Agency has given notice to dozens of scientists that they will not be renewed in their roles in advising the agency, continuing a scientific shake-up that has already triggered resignations and charges from some researchers that the administration is politicizing the agency.
Members of the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) whose terms end in August will not see them renewed, according to an email sent to members and obtained by The Washington Post, though they can reapply for their posts. Moreover, five meetings of subcommittees of the board, planned for the late summer and the fall, will now be canceled because of lack of membership. They will be held once the board is reconstituted, according to EPA officials.
"It effectively wipes out the BOSC and leaves it free for a complete reappointment," said Deborah Swackhamer, the current chair of the board's executive committee and an emeritus professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Minnesota.
That executive committee has only five remaining members, after a number of members whose terms were up earlier this year were not renewed. The board also has five subcommittees, but according to an email from Swackhamer, "with the latest information from EPA, 38 of the 49 remaining subcommittee members will not be renewed at the end of August."
EPA officials said the fact that many advisers' terms were ending provided an opportunity to reach out to a broad array of applicants and draw on their expertise.
"EPA is grateful for the service of all BOSC members, past and present, and has encouraged those with expiring terms to reapply," said agency spokeswoman Amy Graham. "We are taking an inclusive approach to filling future BOSC appointments and welcome all applicants from all relevant scientific and technical fields."
The announcement, sent from acting assistant administrator of the Office of Research and Development Robert Kavlock, said that members can reapply but have a June 30 deadline to do so.
Members are appointed to three-year terms, but they are traditionally renewed for another term if they choose to continue serving. Officials in the previous administration had told several advisers they should expect to serve longer than one term, but that is not dictated under board rules.
"To be renewed for a second term is usually anticipated, expected, and the only time you might not serve a second term is if your expertise was no longer needed," Swackhamer said.
The EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors advises the agency's Office of Research and Development, which is being targeted for extremely deep budget cuts, on whether the research it does has sufficient rigor and integrity and addresses important scientific questions.
Peter Meyer, an economist with the E.P. Systems Group who had already resigned publicly from the board's sustainable and healthy communities subcommittee to protest the ongoing shake-up, said that he and his colleagues had thought they would be staying on.
"We were told quite explicitly by the leadership of the sustainable and healthy communities group … that our assignment was a four-to-five-year assignment," Meyer said. "That was what we were told at our first meeting. That produces an assumption that you're going to get reappointed so that you can complete the job."
Scott Openshaw, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, said in an email that the turnover would address his group's and others' "concerns in the past that EPA advisory boards did not include a diversity of views and therefore frequently presented a biased perspective on issues before them."
"All stakeholders, industry and consumers, benefit by ensuring regulations are based on the best science available," he added. "We are hopeful Administrator Pruitt's actions will help to ensure regulatory decisions are based on the highest quality science, enhance accountability, create greater balance, more transparency and fewer conflicts of interest on EPA advisory boards."
Meyer, however, said that he fears the goal is to clear out the membership of these boards so that new members can be appointed, perhaps those who are more favorable to the communities actually being regulated by the EPA.
Elena Craft, a researcher based at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund who serves on a subcommittee of the board focused on air, climate and energy, also said she received the notice Monday.
"It's just, yet another example of the administration's disregard for independent scientific counsel, on issues that are critically important to the nation," Craft said. She added that her subcommittee was scheduled to meet in September, but that's now off.
"This gives me a great deal of concern about the erosion of science in this administration," said Robert Richardson, an ecological economist and associate professor in Michigan State University's Department of Community Sustainability, who co-chaired one of the BOSC subcommittees and was let go earlier this spring. "It's hard to understand the rationale behind a decision like this. I understand they might simply want to repopulate [the board] with people of their own choosing. However, this could also be a way of just weakening advisory boards, of diminishing their role by not replacing members."
Richardson said other colleagues had contacted him this week about the news that the EPA would not renew the terms of dozens of additional scientific advisers to the agency.
"I don't think anybody is terribly surprised," he said. "[Trump officials] have been clear that they intend to wipe all these slates clean. They want no continuity from any decisions that were made by the previous administration, even nonpolitical decisions."
Richardson said serving as an effective outsider adviser to the EPA comes with a "steep learning curve" and that over the years he and his colleagues had worked hard during their years on the board to build a rapport with EPA's Office of Research and Development and to serve the agency effectively.
"All that knowledge will be lost," he said.
Pruitt has taken a deep interest in what scientific questions the EPA should be exploring in the coming years, according to his aides, and a transformation of the board could make a shift in focus easier to carry out. Many Republicans have criticized the agency for devoting too much of its resources toward climate change in recent years, as opposed to more traditional environmental threats.
This appears to be just the start of advisory committee changes at the EPA. The agency's Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) also likely will be changed in the future.
One senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing conversations, said that a segment of the Scientific Advisory Board rotates off each year and the agency will issue a Federal Register notice in the next couple of weeks that will invite applicants to replace those members whose terms are expiring.
"EPA is currently deliberating next steps for the SAB and CASAC," said one senior agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because no final decision has been made.
Brady Dennis contributed to this report.