The Trump Administration has been engaged in a months-long process of dismantling key scientific boards within the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Both the Science Advisory Board (SAB) and the Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) have been targeted by budget and personnel cuts that threaten to undermine their ability to provide feedback and advice on important EPA research initiatives. Although many people might not be familiar with these boards, they play a vital role in the EPA. As these boards come under increased pressure, Dr. Deborah Swackhamer, the chair of the BOSC executive committee, recently warned that their diminished capacity makes the EPA “less transparent, and less accountable.”

Established in 1978, the 47-member SAB “provides a mechanism for the [EPA] to receive peer review and other advice designed to make a positive difference in the production and use of science.” Most notably, it offers feedback on the research used by the EPA to craft regulatory policies. The BOSC, which was founded in 1996, also provides feedback used in the creation of EPA-led regulations on issues such as clean air and water. Members of the BOSC, which consists of an 18-person executive board as well as numerous subcommittees, serve three-year terms and are traditionally invited to serve a second term due to the long-term nature of many of their research projects.

The SAB was the first board to be targeted, with actions beginning in March when the House of Representatives approved the EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2017. The bill, which has yet to be approved by the Senate, proposes a number of changes to requirements for board membership, the most notable being an “allowance of affiliation with, or representation of, entities that may have a potential interest in the board's advisory activities.” Whereas all previous board appointees were strictly from scientific backgrounds, this change would open the possibility of more input from the industries the EPA is tasked with regulating, creating concerns over conflicts of interest. This was followed by a spending plan issued in April that recommended slashing the Scientific Advisory Board’s budget by 84 percent to comply with the Trump administration’s proposed 31 percent budget cut to the EPA. Such cuts would further limit the board's operational abilities.

In early May, Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA, oversaw the dismissal of nine of the 18 members of the BOSC executive committee by choosing not to renew their three-year terms when they expired on April 30, claiming this “clean break with the last administration’s approach” was to allow for new voices on the board. This highly unusual decision was said to have come as a shock to the board members, who claimed they had previously been informed twice, in January before President Obama left office and again in late April, that their terms would be renewed. Along with an additional four expired terms that were left unfilled, the executive committee was left with five remaining members. In response to these cuts, two subcommittee members resigned in protest.

A second round of dismissals hit the BOSC in June when the EPA announced that all terms that end in August, both for executive board and subcommittee members, would not be renewed. This means 38 of the remaining 49 BOSC subcommittee members will not have their terms renewed. These cuts, which will result in just 11 subcommittee members and three executive board members remaining at the end of August, will leave every subcommittee without a chair or vice chair. Due to the scale of the staff reductions, all remaining BOSC subcommittee meetings for 2017, five in total, were canceled. Furthermore, the remaining members were notified that there would be no automatic renewals for terms that end next March. Although members whose terms were expired were officially encouraged to reapply, there is widespread concern among the scientific community that a majority of these positions will either go to people with business and industry ties or will remain unfilled, effectively ending the ability of the board to provide meaningful feedback.

Reactions from lawmakers to these efforts to weaken the SAB and BOSC have largely been partisan. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) spoke out against the prospect of having industries that are supposed to be regulated by the EPA on key advisory boards, saying it would be like allowing members of the tobacco industry to determine their own health regulations. Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), both vocal climate change deniers, argued that the changes would reduce conflicts of interest and increase member diversity, allowing for “science, not rigged science.” Scientists, meanwhile, have overwhelmingly opposed the moves, referring to the cuts as a “watering down of credible science” that “undermine objectivity” and should be viewed as a “red flag” by supporters of climate-oriented regulation.

Though EPA spokespeople insisted no one had been fired and expressed their gratitude for the work done by the BOSC in an email to members, former members remain skeptical about the intent behind the dismissals. Peter Meyer, one of the members who resigned after the first wave of dismissals was announced, said that the moves were part of the Trump administration’s continued efforts to “purge science.” Above all, scientists appear concerned about the future effectiveness of the boards. Robert Richardson, one of the members dismissed in May, noted that there is a “steep learning curve” that comes with being a member and that it takes time to build productive working relationships within the EPA. Echoing this sentiment, Meyer warned, "Whatever accumulated knowledge about the EPA and experience in advising the EPA that the BOSC has built up will be lost.”


Author: James Stanish