Robert B. Richardson is an associate professor in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at Michigan State University.
“The greatness of America is strengthened by science -- it helps us lift people up, improve the human condition, and build a better world.” – Jonathan Foley, Scientific American
Science plays an important role in informing environmental policy throughout the federal government, particularly in the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s for a good reason; as citizens, we should expect our government to develop evidence-based policies that serve the public good, including policies that keep us safe, healthy, and able to enjoy the wonders of nature.
Two external boards provide scientific advice to the EPA. The Board of Scientific Counselors consists of an 18-member executive committee, in addition to dozens of members of subcommittees that provide advice and recommendations about technical and management issues related to the research programs of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. The Science Advisory Board is a much larger group of about 45 members who provide scientific advice to the EPA administrator.
Since 2014, I have had the pleasure of serving on the first group, as a member of the executive committee, and as chair of the subcommittee on the Sustainable and Healthy Communities research program. Members represent a distinguished body of scientists and engineers who are recognized experts in their respective fields. My training is in environmental economics, and I was the only economist on the executive committee, the members of which also included scholars of environmental engineering, medicine, sociology and other disciplines.
I received notification by e-mail on May 5 that my appointment would not be renewed. Members are appointed to a three-year term, and are eligible for renewal to a second three-year appointment. I had reached the end of my first three-year appointment, and it is my understanding that eight other members whose first three-year terms were ending would also not be reappointed.
Typically members are reappointed to serve a maximum of two consecutive three-year terms. The email took me by surprise; we had all been informed in January that our appointments would be renewed, and that the process of reappointment was underway. We were informed the agency would solicit new members.
I was disappointed, as the opportunity to serve and interact with the other board members the many brilliant scientists throughout the Office of Research and Development at EPA has been one of the most intellectually rewarding experiences of my career.
Of greater concern is the greater issue of the apparent widespread erosion of science in the EPA under this new administration.
Can industry voices be objective?
The agency has publicly announced its intent to appoint representatives from industry. EPA spokesman J. P. Freire said that means including more people “who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community.” This raises questions about the objectivity of scientific advice from a board that includes representatives of regulated industries.
Members are required to comply with ethics and conflict of interest disclosure statements, and do not receive grant funding from the EPA during their periods of service. It would be difficult to imagine how representatives from regulated industries could effectively demonstrate that they have no conflict of interest with the agency’s activities.
In my opinion, the greatest changes to EPA thus far are the executive orders that would dismantle the Clean Power Plan and rescind the Waters of the United States rule. Those actions have a direct effect on environmental quality and threats to public health, and limit the ability of the U.S. to respond to the threat of global climate change. There has long been an urgent need for global action by every nation to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, and this administration has demonstrated no inclination to lead such action.
Other proposed changes are worrisome, such as the president’s budget requests cutting EPA funding, and a bill to dramatically alter the role and function of the Science Advisory Board. And the apparent disregard for climate science, evidenced by the removal of data and information about climate change from the EPA website, deprives the public, including teachers and students, of valuable information.
The changes to EPA in the new administration appear to also signal a disregard for the agency’s mission. Administrator Scott Pruitt has indicated that his new “back-to-basics” agenda means “returning EPA to its core mission: protecting the environment by engaging with state, local, and tribal partners to create sensible regulations that enhance economic growth.” Protecting jobs or supporting economic growth is not part of the EPA’s mandate. The agency’s mission is “to protect human health and the environment.” The administrator would do well to keep that mission in mind in setting priorities for the Agency.
While I am disappointed that my role as a member of the BOSC will not continue, I have much greater concerns about the implications of changes in the EPA that potentially threaten human health and environmental quality, and the sustainability of our planet.