Deborah Swackhamer, a prominent water chemist, was dumped as chair of a key science panel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday as part of a dramatic restructuring of how the agency gets scientific advice.
Swackhamer, a retired University of Minnesota professor, has drawn the public spotlight this year for sharply criticizing EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt. She said Tuesday that Pruitt is turning the agency’s scientific advisory boards into committees that will “rubber stamp his agenda: deregulation.”
Late Tuesday, Pruitt announced he would appoint new leadership to three panels: The Scientific Advisory Board (SAB), which guides the agency on the science underlying regulations; the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee; and the Board of Scientific Counselors. Swackhamer recently chaired the latter board, and she will remain a member at least until March.
At the same time, Pruitt announced a new policy that would disallow anyone who receives EPA research funding from serving as an adviser.
That will, in effect, bar many of the nation’s top academic researchers — experts in everything from toxicology to public health to cancer — because the agency is the primary source of funding for environmental research.
The new policy will ensure that advisers are independent and free of conflicts of interest, Pruitt said in a news release.
“Whatever science comes out of EPA shouldn’t be political science,” Pruitt said. “From this day forward, EPA advisory committee members will be financially independent from the Agency.”
The new policy does not rule out other potential conflicts of interest, such as advisers accepting research funding from corporate interests regulated by the EPA. Critics, including Swackhamer, pointed out that the boards instead will include representatives from industries that the EPA regulates and state officials who in the past have challenged the agency’s regulatory efforts.
For example, the new chair of the SAB, which Swackhamer headed for four years, is Michael Honeycutt from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. He has fought air pollution standards on ozone and published a paper arguing that tightening the standard would not improve public health.
“These are not unbiased people,” Swackhamer said of the new appointees. And many will not have the qualifications needed to provide scientific guidance on regulations, she said.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman said in an e-mail that membership on the three boards consists of qualified scientists who will “help strengthen public confidence in EPA science.” Members who have current grants from the agency can decide if they want to continue serving or if they want to give up their funding, she said.
Swackhamer does not have any EPA grants, she said. As a result, she is expected to continue serving her term on the board of counselors, Bowman said.
She will continue to speak out against the changes at the EPA, she said. She has already appeared before a congressional committee, where she said she believes Pruitt intends to “marginalize” science, and she’s been quoted widely in the national press about changes underway at the EPA.
“I didn’t ask for this — this is not my comfort zone,” she said. “Now I feel even more compelled to speak up, and as long as someone listens, I will continue.”
Pruitt, the former attorney general from Oklahoma, has made good on his promise to change direction at the EPA. He’s expressed skepticism about the consensus of climate scientists that man-made carbon emissions are the primary cause of global warming, and rolled back the clean power plan that would have reduced greenhouse gas emissions. He also overruled the consensus among top staff who recommended pulling a top-selling pesticide from the market after peer-reviewed studies showed it damaged children’s brains and was linked to autism.