The sudden overhaul of a key advisory panel at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sends a worrisome signal that science will take a back seat to industry under the Trump administration, according to a respected University of Minnesota water scientist who chairs the panel.

Deborah Swackhamer hasn’t lost her job — her term on the Board of Scientific Counselors ends in 2018. But 13 members of the 18-person panel will not be reappointed, and now she faces months of uncertainty about whether the scientific mission of the panel will be watered down by the industry representatives who are likely to replace them.

In an interview this week, Swackhamer said she and other scientists are concerned that it’s just the first of the many advisory groups that guide at the EPA to get a dose of what they regard as anti-science policies of the new administration.

“I worry that this is part of a larger sensibility, of putting science behind and promoting deregulation,” she said.

The board she chairs advises the federal agency on the rigor and integrity of the original research conducted by about 1,500 EPA scientists in the agency’s prime scientific arm. They investigate scientific questions that are critical to the agency’s job but that others in academia or industry are not addressing.

In short, the panel is not involved in regulation or policy.

“We are the science nerds,” Swackhamer said.

So it was a shock last Friday when nine of the members whose first three-year terms were expiring received e-mails from EPA administrators saying that their services would no longer be required. That is an unprecedented reversal of the longtime practice of members serving two three-year terms back to back, Swackhamer said. It means that, combined with the four who were completing their second terms, a total of 13 seats will be empty. Filling them could take months, assuming the EPA maintains its thorough vetting process of new appointees, she said.

“I use the word eviscerated,” she said.

An EPA spokesman, J.P. Freire, said that under the new EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, the agency wants to consider a wider array of applicants, potentially including those who may work for chemical and fossil fuel companies. He said former board members may also be considered.

“We are going to look at all applicants that come in, because this is an open and competitive process,” Freire said. “EPA received hundreds of nominations to serve on the board, and we want to ensure fair consideration of all the nominees.”

He also said that the EPA does not want to “rubber stamp” appointees from the previous administration — a statement that Swackhamer said she found offensive.

“I resent the fact that we are considered biased because were appointed during [President Barack] Obama’s tenure,” she said. “I would behave the same way if I were appointed by Pruitt.”

Swackhamer also said the panel has often included scientists from industry, but that can sometimes create obstacles to getting the work done. It’s difficult to find industry scientists with the right kind of expertise, she said, and often they can’t participate in some discussions because of conflicts of interest with their employer or industry.

What’s even more troubling, she said, is what the abrupt change in policy forecasts for the coming vacancies on the much larger and far more influential Scientific Advisory Board that does guide the EPA on major issues like climate change, air and water quality and toxic exposure. Swackhamer served on that panel as a member and as chair from 2003 through 2012.

Conservatives have long complained about the EPA’s approach to science, including the input it receives from outside scientific bodies.

U.S. House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, a vocal skeptic of the widely accepted science on climate change, held a hearing on the issue in February, where he advocated for adding nonacademic members to the Scientific Advisory Board. The panel, which was established in 1978, is primarily made up of academic scientists and other experts who review EPA’s research to ensure that the regulations the agency adopts are based in sound science.

Joe Arvai, who directs the University of Michigan Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise and is a longtime member of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, said industry scientists provide valuable input, and would be welcome.

But that would change if Pruitt decides to weaken the vetting process and appoints members who are unqualified or who have a conflict of interest.

“If the Science Advisory Board found itself with a scientists who lack credibility or whose moral compass is bent, that would be extraordinarily dangerous,” Arvai said.

 

This report contains material from the Associated Press