The Trump administration is remaking a key scientific advisory committee at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, according to an e-mail sent Monday to its members, including two at the University of Minnesota.
The committee was told that, contrary to past practice, members would have to reapply for their positions when their terms expire — a step that caused many in the scientific community to worry that EPA Commissioner Scott Pruitt will place industry interests ahead of science.
“They are wiping it clean and repopulating it with their own selection of people,” said Deborah Swackhamer, a U professor emeritus who chairs the advisory board. “It’s very concerning.”
EPA officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. But in other news reports, spokeswoman Amy Graham said the agency is grateful for the service of committee members and is encouraging those with expiring terms to reapply.
“We are taking an inclusive approach to filling future [committee] appointments and welcome all applicants from all relevant scientific and technical fields,” Graham said.
The board, which has operated largely out of the public eye, provides guidance to the EPA on basic scientific research and research conducted for state governments that cannot do their own.
Agency officials said that Pruitt wanted to appoint more members of industry, which caused some in the research community to worry that the panel will lose its scientific integrity.
“They politicized it, and, in my mind, are making it less objective,” Swackhamer said. The board does no work related directly to regulation, so appointing people from industry “doesn’t make any sense,” she added.
The board and its five subcommittees already include half a dozen members from corporations and consulting firms.
“There are lots of good scientists in industry,” said Lawrence Baker, a U professor of ecology and biosystems who is on a water quality subcommittee. “They should be represented. But they should be publishing scientists, people with the competence to review research.”
Now the changes are much more sweeping. Monday’s e-mail, from the acting administrator of the office of scientific advisers, said that 38 of the 49 remaining members whose terms expire in August must reapply for their positions. All 2017 meetings will be canceled, it said, and the board’s work will resume in 2018 after new members have been appointed.
Swackhamer’s term expires in March 2018. She said she assumes that she will also have to reapply, and that she intends to.
“I am telling people they should apply,” she said of her fellow board members. “If no good scientists apply, it will fit into my worst fears that the EPA would appoint lots of industry people. We at least need a balanced set of people on the list of nominees.”
One critical question is whether industry scientists can pass the agency’s conflict-of-interest rules. The nomination posting for board positions published last month in the Federal Register says that applicants must fill out a form detailing potential conflicts. But Swackhamer said that the final decision rests with the agency, and that disclosure of potential conflicts is not mandatory.
“It becomes a very opaque process,” she said.