Dismissed from an EPA board, an MSU economist fears for agency’s, and planet’s, future

Do proposed budget cuts to the EPA, and the removal of academic scientists from its advisory board, suggest heavy weather ahead? 

Robert Richardson

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.

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Kevin Grand
Fri, 05/12/2017 - 1:26pm

"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."

I don't know what worse, the old re-tread AGW argument being trotted out again, or the fact that the organization Mr. Richardson is promoting is one of the biggest polluters itself that doesn't want to take any responsibility for its own actions?


Perhaps, Mr. Richardson can inform us on how many EPA officials have been charged or fined?

If the EPA cannot (more likely will not) hold itself up the the standards it wants to impose on others, what does that say about the organization itself?

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 12:22pm

This is more disturbing, and more far reaching, than the Comey affair. The statutory mission of the EPA is "to protect human health and the environment." While it's not surprising that a Republican administration tilts toward business, it's more surprising, and quite telling, that an official EPA letter would misdescribe its own mission (as economic enhancement").

Mad Matthew
Sat, 05/13/2017 - 3:09pm

Let's call these "industry representatives" what they are, OK? Polluters.
And oh look, a global warming denier. What's next, the flat Earth society? And please note it was an EPA CONTRACTOR who caused that spill. Privatization strikes again.

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 6:09pm

When have you ever heard of the EPA not holding the owner of the material released as the polluter. Do you honestly doubt if it were a private company role of the EPA they would not have been fined, and a far reaching investigation and consideration of criminal action would have been made.

The EPA had learn from those in Washington to create a double standard for environmental responsibility and accountability. The head of the EPA response was dilution will be the solution of this spill [“The good news is, the river seems to be restoring itself,” Gina McCarthy].

Sun, 05/14/2017 - 1:40am

The Trumpsters mantra is Governor Snyder's on steroids. That is a direct intent to benefit the wealthy at any cost to the lesser classes.
The inexplicable will begin on a very large scale as the Trumpster's minions { just like Snyder's} trample anything that stands in the way of making the rich richer and the poor poorer.
What these Republican idiots can't seem to grasp is as the middle class and the lesser class's inability or lack of desire to spend money on a few of what they call luxuries {a new refrigerator or a better used car or move from a slumish or semi-slumish area to a nicer area is what drives the GDP down which reduces jobs, reduces taxation, and increases the national debt and robs people of all ages of any hope for a better future.
Trump and Snyder have already built a wall that traps people of all ages from climbing higher to help themselves and the nation to get better.
The Republicans mantra of let them eat cake will only feed an outburst of disdain and an uprising against the disturbing destruction of the once vibrant American Way where each generation had the method, means and desire to climb above the shoulders of their predecessors.
The pity of the Republicans reversing this great nations ability to grow more financially secure at all its basic levels won't be recognized until its almost or nearly almost too late.
The Republicans have forgotten that for a company or a nation to succeed each member has to have the ability move up and desire to succeed.

Wed, 05/17/2017 - 6:42pm

We need companies to take a pledge to follow a better standard than the EPA will be enforcing under Trump. We need to be ready to fix all the broken systems when Trump disappears down the toilet of history. We need to find a way to encourage scientists to keep sticking up for science and the public interest, even when the government takes out it's dentures and is left with no teeth. Corporations don't have anyone's best interest at heart because they don't have a heart and don't breath the air or drink the water. They function to just look for profits. They'll never have to say, "Sorry, grandkids, you can't breath money."

Thu, 05/18/2017 - 3:04pm

We need people to stop, take a breath, and think before they make blanket condemnation of people and organizations.

People should think about who creates the technology and operation procedures to comply with EPA regulations, think about how we should want an ever improving environmental performance while EPA rules are based on how things were done in the past, think about how every government regulation writer starts by trying to ensure enforce-ability and not how to improved performance. And consider what organization [US government] is least accountable for compliance to EPA regulations.

Sat, 05/13/2017 - 6:02pm

When the US Supreme Court had to explain to the EPA that a moist patch of earth is not a navigable waterway or a wetland, the Court was documenting that the EPA had let go of science in favor of politics over a generation ago.

The US Supreme Court [Nos. 04ñ1034 and 04ñ1384] made the ruling when the EPA tried to claim their authority over land use by claiming that rain water runoff from a public road that spread out across fields before reaching the Tittabawassee River was not a navigable waterway.

Dave Maxwell
Sun, 05/14/2017 - 12:49am

Clean Power Plan and Waters of the United States Rule both examples of the EPA's overreach, the former to deliberately put coal out of business in the US and the latter to make every stream subject to the EPA rather than to states' DNRs or whatever the state calls them. The EPA has turned into a huge bully and waste of taxpayer money, and whenever anyone (read, republican) tries to rein them in, comes the usual barrage of accusations that we are polluters, global warming deniers, and robbing our children of their legacy, Mother Earth. Complete baloney. So when they call for a guy's resignation, why can't he just accept it and move on, rather than whining like some freshman college student?

John S.
Sun, 05/14/2017 - 2:35pm

The Board will surely miss the expertise of a professional economist. Such expertise is essential for understanding how to craft environmental policies that actually protect health and the environment and do so as efficiently as possible with maximum net social benefits.

Chuck Jordan
Mon, 05/15/2017 - 1:27am

Too bad people are so divided and their ideas solidified. Both sides need to be represented at the EPA and accountability is required. We can't afford however to allow the vested interests of corporations to make all the decisions. There has to be a balance. I've heard that humans are the only species to destroy their nest. I hope not. It's the only one we have.

Tue, 05/16/2017 - 2:17am


I wonder if that is another political ploy. It would seem the great herds such as the buffalo migrated across the plains as their masses overwhelmed where they were so they were forced to move on until their previous habitat was replenished while they were depleting other areas. I have to admit this is my logic and I wonder what a biologist would say, it they would think that and overpopulating herd could destroy its 'nest' and move on to destroy another.

I have heard that we will destroy the earth, I think that is a dilusional thought. I my high school history is right the earth has gone through many upheavals greater than anything man can conjure by neglect and it has survived and bloomed again and again. I really dislike seeing waste, but the reality is that just like the carbon in CO2, nature recycles it. The carbon in the air today I suspect has been organic and inorganic many times, I suspect it has been CO2 many time since it was created. That leads me to believe that it will cycle again and again even after we are gone. If that is the case then people are delusional that believe we will destroy the earth simply by facilitating such cycles.

Tue, 05/16/2017 - 6:39am

The EPA needs to realign its priorities. While public safety is in direct risk with the Flint Water debacle as evidence, areas of prime developable land that could provide many jobs are restricted for use as 'possible wet lands'. Drain the swamps! Aka- East Lansing.