Scott Pruitt removes scientists from EPA advisory panels to make room for industry advocates

In unprecedented move, EPA chief declines to renew scientists for a second term.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up a hardhat he was given during a visit to Consol Energy’s Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa., Thursday, April 13, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up a hardhat he was given during a visit to Consol Energy’s Harvey Mine in Sycamore, Pa., Thursday, April 13, 2017. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

The Environmental Protection Agency has started notifying members of a scientific review board that their terms as EPA advisers would not be renewed, a move experts in the field are calling unprecedented.

Scientists who serve on advisory boards at the EPA and other federal agencies typically are allowed to serve two full terms. But late last week the agency, under the leadership of administrator Scott Pruitt, informed several scientists on its 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors that they would not be permitted to serve a second term.

Robert Richardson, an ecological economist and an associate professor at Michigan State University’s Department of Community Sustainability, said that in almost all cases, scientists are re-appointed for a second three-year term. In January, Richardson was told that he and the other eight members of the panel who were nearing the end of their first term would have their positions extended for a second term.

“But on Friday, at 6:20 p.m., I received an email saying, ‘We’ve submitted paperwork to request that your appointment be renewed. However, the agency has decided not to renew your appointment,’” Richardson told ThinkProgress.

Pruitt reportedly plans to consider replacing the academic scientists with representatives from industries that the agency is required to regulate. Scientists see potential harm in allocating a certain number advisory panel seats to industry scientists.

“Frankly, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Board of Scientific Counselors does,” Richardson said. “I’ve seen quotes from EPA spokespersons that have said that we need a different mix on this board because they have a heavy hand in approving regulations.”

But members of the advisory panels have no authority in approving regulations, don’t review regulations, and don’t make recommendations with regard to regulations, Richardson explained.

Courtney Flint, a professor of natural resource sociology at Utah State University, also was notified by email that her appointment to the Board of Scientific Counselors was not going to be renewed. “This came as a surprise as I had been told that the appointment would be renewed. No other reason was given,” Flint said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress.

A total of nine board members were affected by this decision, according to Flint. “It’s clear from the reports in the media that the current administration has said that they want to replace board positions held by academic scientists with members from industry, so I do not think I am speculating when I say that this is a political move,” she said.

In 1978, Congress directed the EPA to establish a Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), which today is a 47-member panel, to provide scientific advice to the administrator. The Board of Scientific Counselors, part of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development, was established as a discretionary federal advisory committee in 1996. Members of these advisory panels often work anywhere from 30 hours to hundreds of hours a year.

“Frankly, it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Board of Scientific Counselors does.”

The EPA contends the removal of scientists from the advisory panels is not unusual. “We’re not going to rubber-stamp the last administration’s appointees. Instead, they should participate in the same open competitive process as the rest of the applicant pool,” agency spokesman J.P. Freire said in a statement emailed to the Washington Post. “This approach is what was always intended for the board, and we’re making a clean break with the last administration’s approach.”

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) held a hearing on the issue in February, arguing that the composition of the SAB should be expanded to include more non-academics.

Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator under George W. Bush, showed respect for the scientific process, experts say. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
Christine Todd Whitman, who served as EPA administrator under George W. Bush, showed respect for the scientific process, experts say. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

In late March, the House passed the “EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017,” a bill that calls fora well-balanced expert panel, increased transparency, public participation to empower” the agency’s SAB to “provide meaningful and unbiased scientific advice, and better responsiveness to the public and Congress.”

The Washington Post reported in April that the SAB is facing an 84 percent cut, or $542,000, from its operating budget. The funds typically cover travel and other expenses for outside experts who attend the board’s public meetings.

Andrew Rosenberg, a marine scientist and director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, expressed dismay that the EPA wants to get more scientists from regulated industries on the agency’s advisory panels.

“Science advisory boards are not representational bodies,” Rosenberg told ThinkProgress. “You are there as an expert. You’re rendering your view as an expert on scientific programs and scientific evidence. If you turn it into a representational body, why would you have only regulated industries? What about NGOs? What about public health organizations?”

Pruitt has been forthright about the fact that the EPA’s primary constituents, under the Trump administration, are going to be industry, not the public, Rosenberg said. “If they are proposing that the decisions not be based on science, what is it they are proposing they be based on? The alternative is pure politics. Who has the most influence? That’s the wrong way to go. You don’t want to set a precedent that we make decisions based solely on influence in politics,” he argued.

Joe Arvai, a member of the SAB and director of the University of Michigan’s Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, said regular turnover on these advisory boards is common, as scientists sometimes choose not to serve a second term. “What is unusual is not re-appointing people after their first term,” he told ThinkProgress.

“It’s general practice that if you have the credentials and if you are a credible scientist and serve on these boards for one term and you’re willing to be reappointed, I’ve never heard of an instance where someone wasn’t re-appointed for a second term,” he said.

Between 2003 and 2008, Arvai served as an adviser to the staff office that manages the EPA boards. But times have changed from when he worked with Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator under President George W. Bush. “She was a Bush appointee but was very interested in what science had to say and what it would bring to her agency.” However, since Trump entered the White House, Arvai said he’s never seen an administration “come in with more disdain for mainstream science.”

Arvai said he’s never seen an administration “come in with more disdain for mainstream science.”

The membership of these advisory panels has always included “credible scientists” from industry, nonprofits, non-governmental organizations and think tanks, he noted. “There has never been any restriction against appointing people with credentials from a non-academic sector,” he added.

By making these changes, Pruitt and the Trump administration are hoping to “look like tough guys, like they’re getting tough on the all the liberal scientists,” he said. “But in a reality, it’s all for political show with no real practical change being implemented,” he added. “In reality, the board never stood in the way of industry. The board was an adviser to the administrator. And the administrator gets to choose whether or not to accept any advice or recommendations from the SAB.”