Where Trump has weakened public and scientific input

Suspended advisory boards and dismissed scientists hamper policy-making.

 

In the past few weeks, the Trump administration’s attitude toward scientific and public input on government decision-making has become clear: It’s not a priority. Beginning May 8, the Environmental Protection Agency dismissed nine members of its 18-person board of scientific counselors, which is supposed to scrutinize the integrity of the agency’s research. Around the same time, the Interior Department suspended 200 advisory boards, many of which allow citizens to make recommendations on natural resource management.

Government spokespeople have said these decisions aim to bring the agencies in line with goals of the new administration. Yet the moves have instigated intense outcry from members of the wider scientific community who say the administration is blocking input on federal decision-making. “This is part of a larger effort to undermine the role that science plays in our federal government,” said Genna Reed, policy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, noting that the administration has also removed climate data from federal websites, frozen grant processes for scientists, and failed to make key scientific appointments, such as in the Office of Science and Technology. Interior’s freeze of advisory councils has concerned Westerners in particular, who depend on them to give public input on contentious natural resource management decisions.

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt holds up a miner's helmet that he was given after speaking with coal miners. The dismissal of half the members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors earlier this month reflects the Trump administration’s allegiance to business and industry over scientific rigor.
Justin Merriman/Getty Images

The dismissal of half the members of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors earlier this month reflects the Trump administration’s allegiance to business and industry over scientific rigor, critics say. Two members of a subcommittee of the board have resigned in protest. EPA spokesman J.P. Freire said members of regulated industries will be considered as replacements; those industries include oil, gas and mineral development.

“In my experience of 15 years on and off of EPA boards, I have not seen (this) before,” board chair Deborah Swackhamer, who chairs the board, told High Country News. “When an individual is not renewed, there is usually a compelling reason, such as a conflict of interest with upcoming work, or their expertise is not needed. But that was not the case here. 

The Board of Scientific Counselors plays a critical role when it comes to the integrity of the science that environmental regulations are based on. The board was created in 1996 to ensure that EPA researchers adhered to scientific standards; the group reviews research results before the agency uses them to develop regulations. “The West has some really important issues that interface with EPA science, like oil and gas development, water quality concerns, mining legacy, Superfund sites and tribal environmental health issues,” Utah State University natural resource sociologist Courtney Flint said. She was one of those dismissed from the board, which is traditionally composed of academics from a wide variety of backgrounds, as well as representatives from non-governmental organizations who have scientific expertise. Scientists from regulated industries are not prohibited from the board or its subcommittees, though all members go through a rigorous vetting process that includes financial and conflict of interest disclosures. 

The board also reviews EPA science that the agency uses to build practical tools and provide advice for local communities responding to environmental disasters. In the case of an oil spill, for example, Flint said, “Local first responders might be looking for the right products to be using for different contaminants in different kinds of water or soils.”

Another role of the board is to help ensure that EPA scientific models take into consideration the lives and values of people, rather than just environmental factors. This is important for Western communities that identify culturally with extractive industries, Flint said. “If you just eliminate any environmental process (like mining) that could be at all problematic, you may take away the livelihood of people and their identities and you may change the landscape in a way that would not be sustainable in the broad way of thinking about it.” As a natural resource sociologist, Flint has encouraged the EPA to expand definitions of sustainability to include factors such as how community members connect socially or how they relate to their environment.

Given the circumstances, the dismissals don’t seem that out of the ordinary, John Deutch, a chemist at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and former chair of dozens of agency committees, told E&ENews. “I would think it’s not unusual for all the members to resign in a changing of administration,” he said. Yet Swackhamer, Flint and other board members say it’s unusual because most members serve out two three-year terms despite changes in administration, while these nine scientists were let go after just one term. Among them were a national security expert who is CEO of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; a senior engineer at the California Energy Commission; a professor of mineral engineering; and a professor of agricultural air quality. Michigan State University ecological economist Robert Richardson, another of the dismissed, said: “I’ve never heard of any circumstance where someone didn’t serve two consecutive terms.” 

In addition to the en masse changeover on the scientific board of counselors, another EPA board that advises the agency on research and scientific integrity may see a major overhaul. House Bill 1431, introduced by Rep. Lucas Frank, R-Okla., in March, would exclude current or recent recipients of EPA grant funding from holding positions on that board. Such a move could tip the balance of the 47-member panel, created in 1978, away from scientists and toward business and industry representatives.

The Department of Interior has also moved to bar outside input on federal policy. This month, Interior suspended 200 advisory boards and commissions until at least September. The freeze includes 38 resource advisory councils, known as RACs, which allow members of the public to provide recommendations on grazing, mining and recreation to the Bureau of Land Management. Juan Palma, who served in the BLM during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, told High Country News he had never seen such a freeze. “I hope there is some explanation as to why,” he said.

Members of the Southeast Oregon Resource Advisory Council in the field. This RAC has provided recommendations on management options for issues including off-highway recreation, sage-grouse habitat, and noxious-weed control.
Bureau of Land Management

RACs, which are usually composed of 10 to 15 members, make formal recommendations to the BLM on topics ranging from wildlife conservation to grazing rights and off-road vehicle access. Established in 1995, they are required to include representatives from a wide array of interests. RACs are one of the most direct avenues for public input on resource management. “Normally the BLM cannot sit in council with the mining industry or grazing or environmental (interests),” Palma said. “But they can sit in council with a RAC.” The councils can have real clout with the agency, he said. Utah BLM’s policies on remote road closures were largely influenced by recommendations from a RAC several years ago, he said. In Nevada, a BLM wild horse contraception program was based on a proposal by RAC members.

On May 11, eight senators sent a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, criticizing the RAC suspension. “It is critical that local voices, including RACs, have the opportunity to provide input and take part in the process at all times, not just when those local voices align with the Administration or a large special interest,” the letter reads. The senators also say the suspension could cause Oregon RAC’s to miss deadlines for federal funding for projects to promote forest health and create local jobs. 

One of the biggest concerns with the RAC suspension, according to public-lands supporters, is the fact that it coincides with Trump’s executive order to review dozens of national monuments and determine whether to adjust or abolish them. “It would have been a great chance for us to come together as a balanced group and to talk about (Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument) and perhaps provide BLM with perspective,” said Phil Hanceford, Wilderness Society assistant director of agency policy and planning, who sits on the RAC for the monument.

The only explanation Interior has provided for the freeze is a statement that reads, in part: “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.” HCN requested more details as to the reasons for the suspension, but an Interior spokesman declined to provide any.  

When considered together, the EPA dismissals and the RAC suspensions appear to be two pieces of the same puzzle. Without science and diverse public input, industries could become the government’s primary advisors on protecting the environment, natural resource economies and human health. “If we don’t have (outside) review,” said Utah State’s Courtney Flint, “then we miss out on the democratic process of keeping tabs on what’s happening in the federal agencies.”

Tay Wiles is an associate editor at High Country News and can be reached at taywiles@hcn.org.