Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

Trump Scientific Adviser Shakeup Could Mean More Industry Advice

  • Some EPA science research board members won’t get new term
  • Interior Department reviewing more than 200 advisory groups

The Trump administration may give industries a bigger platform to influence agencies’ decisions by reshaping the scientific and expert panels that give advice to the federal government about the dangers of pollution, how to manage public lands and other research areas.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt notified half the 18 members of the Board of Scientific Counselors that their terms had ended and would not be renewed. The panel of experts, who typically serve two consecutive three-year terms, helps guide the agency’s research office. 

Meanwhile, the Interior Department suspended the work of roughly three-dozen resource advisory councils that share suggestions for managing public land in the West, as part of a broad review of how the agency uses outside panels.

"It’s not totally unusual to see boards turn over," said Thomas Burke, a former deputy administrator for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development. "This one was really unexpected, and in concert with everything else that has been going on and the challenges to science, this is troubling," he said by phone.

The changes to the obscure EPA scientific counselors panel could be a precursor to changes in the membership and makeup of two other panels that play an influential role recommending safe air-pollution limits and vetting the scientific basis of regulations. The advisory panel shakeup follows the move by Pruitt to purge web pages dedicated to climate change from EPA’s website while pledging to listen more to industry before crafting pollution rules that may harm business.

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"EPA received hundreds of nominations to serve on the board, and we want to ensure fair consideration of all the nominees,” EPA spokesman J.P. Freire said. "EPA is stressing here that this is supposed to be an open and competitive process; no one was ever supposed to be guaranteed a second term. We’re frankly surprised by the outrage."

Those notified in recent days may, in the end, be reappointed, he said.

But skeptics, including career EPA staff, see this as a move by President Donald Trump to redirect the focus of the pollution regulator, and cozy up to business.

Pruitt “will most likely be replacing them with members who come from industry,” said John J. O’Grady, a leader of the EPA’s employees union.

Some Republican lawmakers have been pushing the Trump administration to put more industry representatives on advisory panels, a move that could ensure the groups hear from petroleum engineers with drilling experience while studying scientific research about the practice. Conservatives also have been seeking new appointments to the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the Science Advisory Board to help buttress any EPA moves to reverse Obama-era ozone limits or the agency’s landmark 2009 conclusion that greenhouse gas emissions endanger the public health and welfare.

Best Candidates

Freire said there was no specific plan to seek out more industry appointees for the Board of Scientific Counselors. "We’re just interested in finding the best candidates, the most qualified candidates," he said.

The Trump administration already has targeted EPA’s Office of Research and Development for a $233 million spending cut next fiscal year -- about half its annual budget. Tumult in the board of advisers overseeing that office could ensure there are fewer independent eyes assessing whether important work is being done, said Gretchen Goldman, research director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

"It appears to be another way they are trying to take science out of the process," Goldman said by phone. "Removing independent advisers means there’s less scrutiny on what they are doing and less of a benchmark to compare to what independent scientists think they should be doing."

There are hundreds of federal advisory committees across the U.S. government. By design, many already have members from regulated industries, sitting alongside representatives from environmental groups and other stakeholders. The Food and Drug Administration alone uses 50 committees to obtain independent expert advise on scientific, technical and policy matters.

Politics Intrudes

Politics sometimes intrudes on the process. Burke, a political appointee under President Barack Obama, said he was "unceremoniously removed" from the chairmanship of an environmental health board at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during the George W. Bush administration.

"Science doesn’t change with administrations, and good science should be independent of that," said Burke, now a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. "It’s important that high-caliber, world-class, well-respected, well-published, objective scientists be appointed," he said, acknowledging there may be value to "enriching the mix of science that advises the EPA."

The Interior Department, which has more than 200 groups designed to solicit input, is now reviewing the charter and charge of each board and advisory committee; the evaluation forced the temporary postponement of advisory committee meetings, the department said in an emailed statement.  

"The secretary is committed to restoring trust in the department’s decision-making and that begins with institutionalizing state and local input and ongoing collaboration, particularly in communities surrounding public lands," the department said in its statement. Future meetings will be publicized “to ensure that the department continues to get the benefit of the views of local communities in all decision-making on public land management."

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