It’s nowhere near the biggest proposed cut to the Environmental Protection Agency by the Trump administration. But it could be the most symbolic.
In a 64-page agency budget document revealed by the Post Friday, a particularly deep cut is aimed at the agency’s 47-member Science Advisory Board, an august panel of outside advisers to the EPA created by Congress in 1978. The board, which is mostly comprised of academic scientists, reviews EPA research to ensure that environmental regulations have a sound foundation.
It would see an 84 percent or $ 542,000 cut to its operating costs, which cover travel and public meetings for outside experts. There would be a smaller reduction for agency support staff of 14 percent.
The decision, said the document, “[reflects] an anticipated lower number of peer reviews,” presumably since so many other agency scientific functions would also be cut.
“Independent science advice is a real pain in the neck for people who already know the answer, and don’t want to be confused by the facts,” said Granger Morgan, a professor engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University who previously chaired the Science Advisory Board, in response to the news.
But an agency spokesperson, who was not cleared to speak on the record, countered in a statement to the Post that such advice “is a valuable resource to the Agency, and as such, will remain a part of our overall structure.”
“While we are reviewing new approaches to funding the Science Advisory Board Staff Office, the office budget has fluctuated over the years and had room for improvement,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to comply with Congress’s directive to maintain the panel.”
The EPA’s Science Advisory Board, which is comprised of researchers from outside the agency but also managed by agency staff, has been in the crosshairs before. During the early Reagan years, it was swept up in a broader controversy over attempts to weaken the agency, including the promulgation of lists naming objectionable scientists who were then “purged,” according to Terry Yosie, who directed the board in a staff role at the EPA for seven years — including during that era — and is now president of the World Environment Center.
More recently, a bill before Congress would change the way the board works, and include more industry voices and influence — an idea that many scientists have strongly opposed.
“I also think there is a direct relationship between these proposed budget reductions and legislation that is working its way through Congress to redefine how peer review gets conducted,” said Yosie. He said the cuts would reduce the board’s peer reviews annually from over 20 to just 2 to 4, and that the reductions would particularly hit the board’s ability to conduct reviews and the travel and hotel stays for its members.
The EPA did not respond to a question about the specific effects of the cuts and what their consequences would be.
In person meetings are crucial to the board’s activities, said Thomas Burke, the EPA’s former science adviser in the Obama administration and now a professor at the Johns’ Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“The board has been incredibly efficient with the use of conference calling and call in,” said Burke. “Modern technology has helped the board minimize travel. But the board does need to get together for critical reviews.”
The influence of the Science Advisory Board — and its ability to draw political ire — is epitomized by one of the board’s most high profile scientific reviews in recent years. This concerned the complex question of whether hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” regularly pollutes drinking water.
An EPA draft report failed to find “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States” — a conclusion greatly welcomed by the oil and gas industry. But a review by the Science Advisory Board last year faulted the scientific basis of that finding in particularly notable language, arguing that “the EPA did not support quantitatively its conclusion about lack of evidence for widespread, systemic impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources, and did not clearly describe the system(s) of interest (e.g., groundwater, surface water), the scale of impacts (i.e., local or regional), nor the definitions of “systemic” and “widespread.”
Several scientists who have served on the board — or, who still do — were alarmed by the proposed cuts.
“These are all efforts that I think will remove the agency’s longstanding reliance on evidence and the scientific community from its routine processes and decision-making,” said Jonathan Samet, a previous board member and environmental health researcher at the University of Southern California.
“The unfortunate thing is that this is the main way that the administrator gets scientific advice on things that the EPA proposes,” said William Schlesinger, a board member who is also president emeritus of the Cary Institute for Ecosystem Studies in Milbrook, New York, and who was not speaking on behalf of the board itself. “It’s supposed to be an unbiased sounding board, and I think it’s functioned exceptionally well in those capacities.”