The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) wants to combine the agency’s two science offices into one, a move that critics contend is another example of the Trump administration trying to diminish the role of scientists at the agency.
Under the plan, the EPA’s Office of Science Policy and the Office of the Science Advisor would be merged into one entity, The Hill reported Thursday. The merger would downgrade the science advisor’s role by placing it into a position lower in the agency, according to experts.
The changes are occurring within the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) — the scientific research arm of the agency — and would combine the two science offices into into a single Office of Science Integration and Policy.
“By dissolving the science adviser’s office and putting it several layers down in ORD, that greatly accelerates the decay of science advice within the EPA administrator’s office,” Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Bloomberg News. “That kind of coordination is much more difficult to do if they’re buried down inside an office.”
The ORD announced to agency staff on Wednesday that it will reorganize several departments found within the office. “EPA’s Office of Research and Development career leadership developed a proposal to combine offices with similar functions in order to reduce redundancies in ORD operations,” Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, EPA’s principal deputy assistant administrator for Science, Office of Research and Development, said in a statement emailed to ThinkProgress on Friday. Among the suggestions was to combine the two offices into one.
The news of this restructure comes after other controversial changes announced by the EPA this week. On Tuesday, it was revealed that the EPA was placing Dr. Ruth Etzel, who runs the Office of Children’s Health, on administrative leave. No explanation was given for placing Etzel on leave, although critics of the move believe it could be part of an effort to shut the office down.
The Trump administration has already demonstrated it is “undermining the use of science in decision-making” and shutting down the Office of Children’s Health would be consistent with that, Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco, told BuzzFeed News.
Michael Mikulka, president of a union representing more than 900 EPA employees, said the reorganization and the placing of Etzel on administrative leave are among several moves by the Trump EPA intended to “kill career civil servants’ input and scientific perspectives on rule making,” CNN reported Friday.
And restructuring the Office of the Science Advisor is the latest example of this. The office currently provides leadership across the agency on science policy development and implementation issues. “The mission of the OSA is to provide leadership and serve as an honest broker for cross-Agency science, science policy, and technology issues,” the EPA’s website says.
About two dozen employees work in the Office of Science Advisor, providing science advice across the agency. The office also oversees the EPA’s Scientific Integrity Office, the Science and Technology Policy Council, and other programs.
Under the plan, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler would have the head of the new office report to the EPA’s deputy assistant administrator for science, at least two managerial layers between the agency’s chief scientist and the administrator, according to the New York Times. The head of the Office of Science Advisor currently reports directly to the administrator.
The merger of the offices could make the agency’s scientists more “vulnerable to political interference,” the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Halpern told the Courthouse News Service.
In implementing these changes, Wheeler is following the same anti-science and anti-environmental protection agenda set by former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. Experts predicted Wheeler would be more effective at dismantling the agency than agency because he would be more adept at avoiding the scandals that drove Pruitt out of the position.
Pruitt waged an explicitly anti-science campaign during his tenure as agency chief. He sought to purge scientists who had previously received EPA grants from sitting on the agency’s advisory committees. Pruitt also was personally involved in the purging of climate science information from the agency’s website in the early months of the Trump administration.
Before he resigned, Pruitt also signed a controversial proposed rule that limited the type of scientific studies and data the agency can use in creating public health and environmental regulations.