EPA accelerates purge of scientists

Members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors were told that they would not see their tenure renewed.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks to the media at the White House on June 2, 2017, about President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt speaks to the media at the White House on June 2, 2017, about President Donald Trump’s decision to exit the Paris climate agreement. CREDIT: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Dozens of Environmental Protection Agency scientists were recently informed that their contracts would not be renewed this August, leaving a key EPA office without important scientific guidance.

According to an email sent to EPA scientists and obtained by the Washington Post, the EPA has decided not to renew the posts of any scientists working for the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC). The BOSC functions as an advisory board for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, and helps the office make sure that it is using sufficiently rigorous science in its research and development programs.

“The Board of Scientific Counselors was formed to make sure the EPA does the best possible scientific work with limited taxpayer dollars,” Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “This independent advice is needed now more than ever. By sacking dozens of scientific counselors, Pruitt is showing that he doesn’t value scientific input and the benefits it offers the public.”

Board members are chosen by the EPA administrator, and serve three-year terms. It is customary for first-term members to receive a second three-year appointment, though reappointment is granted at the discretion of the administrator.

In May, Pruitt notified nine BOSC members to tell them that they would not be receiving a second-term when their tenure ended in August. At the time, the New York Times reported that Pruitt wanted to make space for representatives from industries — like the chemical industry, or oil and gas industry — which the EPA is charged with regulating. In an email to the Washington Post, Scott Openshaw, a spokesman for the American Chemistry Council, said that the dismissals would help address industry concerns that “EPA advisory boards did not include a diversity of views and therefore frequently presented a biased perspective on issues before them.”

The new wave of dismissals brings the total number of BOSC members who will be out of a job in August to 47, which will leave just 11 members serving on the BOSC and its five subcommittees. None of the subcommittees will have a chair or vice chair, and all committee meetings scheduled for late summer and fall have been cancelled.

“Pruitt has pulled off a devious process here: he’s signaled that he intends to dismiss experienced advisors whose terms are expiring over the next year — and he’s using the fact that he’s dismissing them to immediately block them from doing any more work,” UCS’s Kimmell said.

The Trump administration has a notably antagonistic relationship with science, from top administration officials blatantly contradicting the scientific consensus on human-caused climate change on national television to deep proposed cuts to science programs across the federal government. Under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA has scrubbed climate science from the agency’s website, and has rejected scientific advice from its own agency scientists while issuing regulatory decisions. Pruitt is also currently being reviewed by the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Officer for his false comments about climate change made on CNBC in March.

“The decision to suspend the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors and dismiss numerous scientists from its ranks is another brazen act of disregard for science by Scott Pruitt.”

“The decision to suspend the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors and dismiss numerous scientists from its ranks is another brazen act of disregard for science by Scott Pruitt. I’m concerned that he may continue to replace scientists with industry insiders or simply leave the Board in limbo,” Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), told ThinkProgress via email. “Pruitt’s longstanding antipathy to the agency he leads, and its mission of protecting clean air and water, will become a greater menace to public health as he cedes more and more influence to industry at the expense of sound scientific advice.”

According to an administration official, who spoke anonymously with the Washington Post, the dismissal of BOSC scientists could just be the beginning of a larger scientific shakeup within the agency. According to the official, the administration is also looking into replacing members of the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board, a body of scientific counselors meant to provide scientific advice to the administrator.

The news of the most recent round of dismissals broke the same day as news that the EPA is planning whittle its overall workforce by more than 1,000 employees, through buyouts and early retirement.