Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are overhauling a slew of outside advisory boards that inform how their agencies assess the science underpinning policies,Â the first step in a broader effort by Republicans to change the way the federal government evaluates the scientific basis for its regulations.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt decided to replace half of the members on one of its key scientific review boards, while Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke is âreviewing the charter and chargeâ of more than 200 advisory boards, committees and otherÂ entities both within and outside his department. EPA and Interior officials began informing current members of the move Friday, and notifications continued over the weekend.
Pruittâs move could significantly change the makeup of the 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), which advises EPAâs prime scientific arm on whether the research it does has sufficient rigor and integrity. All of the people being dismissed were at the end of serving at least one three-year term, although these terms are often renewed instead of terminated.
EPA spokesman J.P. Freire said in an email that âno one has been fired or terminatedâ and that Pruitt had simply decided to bring in fresh advisers. The agency informed the outside academics on Friday that their terms would not be renewed.
âWeâre not going to rubber-stamp the last administrationâs appointees. Instead, they should participate in the same open competitive process as the rest of the applicant pool,â Freire said. âThis approach is what was always intended for the board, and weâre making a clean break with the last administrationâs approach.â
Separately, Zinke has postponed all outside committees as he reviews their composition and work. The review will effectively freeze the work of the Bureau of Land Managementâs 38 resource advisory councils, along with other panels focused on a range of issues, from one assessing the threat of invasive species to the science technical advisory panel for AlaskaâsÂ North Slope.
âThe Secretary is committed to restoring trust in the Departmentâs decision-making and that begins with institutionalizing state and local input and ongoing collaboration, particularly in communities surrounding public lands,â Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said by email Monday. âAs the Department concludes its review in the weeks ahead, agencies will notice future meetings to ensure that the Department continues to get the benefit of the views of local communities in all decision-making on public land management.â
Greg Zimmerman, deputy director of the non-partisan advocacy group Center for Western Priorities, said in an interview that âit just doesnât make any sense they would be canceling meetings as they do this analysisâ of everything from which large national monuments should be preserved to how to manageÂ public lands more broadly. BLMâs regional advisory councils include officials from the energy and outdoor recreation industry as well as scientists and conservationists, Zimmerman added.
âThe only reasonable explanation is they donât want to be hearing from these folks,â he said.
These moves came as a surprise to the agenciesâ outside advisers, with several of them taking to Twitter to announce their suspensions.
John Peter Thompson, who chairs Interiorâs Invasive Species Advisory Panel, tweeted Monday that he had been notified that âall activities are suspended subject to review by Depart of Interior.â
Members of EPAâs Board of Scientific Counselors had been informed twice â in January, before President Barack Obama left office, and then more recently by EPA career staff members â that they would be kept on for another term, adding to their confusion.
âI was kind of shocked to receive this news,â Robert Richardson, an ecological economist and anÂ associate professor in Michigan State UniversityâsÂ Department of Community Sustainability, said in an interview Sunday.
Richardson, who on Saturday tweeted, âToday, I was Trumped,â said that he was at the end of an initial three-year term but that members traditionally have served twoÂ such stints.Â âIâve never heard of any circumstance where someone didnât serve two consecutive terms,â he said, adding that the dismissals gave him âgreat concern that objective science is being marginalized in this administration.â
Courtney Flint, a professor of natural resource sociology at Utah State University who had served one term on the board, said in an email that she was also surprised to learn that her term would not be renewed, âparticularly since I was told that such a renewal was expected.â But she added, âIn the broader view, I suppose it is the prerogative of this administration to set the goals of federal agencies and to appoint members to advisory boards.â
Ryan Jackson, Pruittâs chief of staff, noted in an email that all the board members whose terms are not being renewed could reapply for their positions. âIâm not quite sure why some EPA career staff simply get angry by us opening up the process,â he said. âIt seems unprofessional to me.â
Terry F. Yosie, who directed EPAâs Science Advisory Board from 1981 to 1988,Â noted in an email that theÂ Board of Scientific Counselors does not report directly to the administrator or his office. âItâs quite extraordinary that such a body would receive this level of attention by the Administratorâs office,â he said.
Pruitt is planning a much broader overhaul of how the agency conducts its scientific analysis, said a senior administration official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. Pruitt has been meeting with academics to talk about the matter and putting thought into which areas of investigation warrant attention from the agencyâs scientific advisers.
The agency may consider industry scientific expertsÂ for some of the board positions as long as these appointments do not pose a conflict of interest, Freire said.
Conservatives have complained for years about EPAâs approach to science, including the input it receives from outside scientific bodies. Both the Board of Scientific Counselors and the 47-member Scientific Advisory Board have come under criticism for bolstering the cause for greater federal regulation.
A majority of the members of the Board of Scientific Counselors have terms expiring this fiscal year, along with the terms of 12 members of the Scientific Advisory Board. GOP lawmakers have frequently criticized the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC)âa committee within the Scientific Advisory Boardâfor its recommendation that the EPA impose much stricter curbs on smog-forming ozone. The seven-person panel, which is charged under theÂ Clean Air Act to review the scientific basis of all ambient air quality standards, is legally required to have a medical doctor and a member of the National Academy of Sciences as members.
Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), who questions the link between human activity and climate change and has several former aides now working for Pruitt, said in an interview earlier this year that under the new administration, âtheyâre going to have to start dealing with science, and not rigged science.â
House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Tex.) held a hearing on the issue in February, arguing that the Scientific Advisory Board should be expanded to include more non-academics. The panel, which was established in 1978, is primarily made up of academic scientists and other experts who review EPAâs research to ensure that the regulations the agency undertakes have a sound scientific basis.
âThe EPA routinely stacks this board with friendly scientists who receive millions of dollars in grants from the federal government,â Smith said at the time. âThe conflict of interest here is clear.â
In a budget proposal obtained by The Washington Post last month, the panelâs operating budget is slated for an 84 percent cut â or $542,000 â for fiscal 2018. That money typically covers travel and other expenses for outside experts who attend the boardâs public meetings.
The document said the budget cut reflects âan anticipated lower number of peer reviews.â
Joe Arvai, a member of the Scientific Advisory Board who directs the University of Michiganâs Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, said in an email that Pruitt and his colleagues should keep in mind that the boardâs membership, just like its standing and ad hoc panels, âalready includes credible scientists from industryâ and that its âwork on agency rulemaking is open to public viewing and comment. So, if diversity of thought andÂ transparencyÂ are the administratorâs concerns, his worries are misplaced because the SAB already has these bases covered.
âSo, if you ask me, his moves over the weekendÂ âÂ as well as the House bill to reform the SABÂ â areÂ attempts to use the SAB as a political toy,â Arvai said. âByÂ making these moves, the administrator and members of the House can pander to the presidentâs base by looking like theyâre getting tough on all thoseÂ pesky âliberal scientists.â But, all else being equal, nothing fundamentally changes about how the SAB operates.â
Chris Mooney contributed to this report.
More from Energy & Environment: