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The EPA Fired a Bunch of Scientists. It’s Just Political Theater—For Now.

"It’s meant to unsettle people, and it’s doing a pretty good job."

Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images

The “war on science” notched another apparent victory late last week, as the Environmental Protection Agency fired at least five scientists on the Board of Scientific Counselors, an 18-member committee that advises the agency’s main science division. The New York Times reported that the agency was considering replacing the fired BOSC members with representatives from polluting industries. “The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” J. P. Freire, a spokesman for Administrator Scott Pruitt, told the Times.

Journalists reacted with alarm, Democrats with outrage:

But this move by Pruitt, while indeed alarming, is neither unprecedented nor necessarily as damaging as it might appear. For now, the main impact of the firings is the brazen message it sends about the agency’s pro-polluter, anti-science priorities under President Donald Trump. “It’s a lot of bullshit,” said Joe Arvai, a University of Michigan professor who serves on a different EPA committee, the Science Advisory Board. “It’s a lot of political noise to show their constituents how tough they are. It’s meant to unsettle people, and it’s doing a pretty good job.”

Everyone fired from the BOSC was about to finish their first term, of three years. While scientists usually serve a second term, it’s not unheard of for them to be replaced with industry representatives (a few industry representatives already serve on BOSC). Tom Burke, a founding member of BOSC and chief science advisor at the EPA under Obama, said similar things happened in the early days of the last Bush administration. “There were many people who were dismissed from advisory boards,” he said, recalling when President George W. Bush dismissed 11 members of the Centers for Disease Control’s environmental health advisory panel in favor of people perceived as more industry-friendly. “It’s not unusual for there to be some evaluation, particularly as terms expire, for what kind of folks an administration wants to have in key advisory roles.”

But the degree of Republican hostility toward Obama-era scientific advisers is indeed unusual. Texas Representative Lamar Smith has long pushed legislation to reconstruct the EPA’s other research review panel, the 47-member Science Advisory Board (SAB). The SAB reviews the “quality and relevance” of the science that the EPA uses to create pollution regulations. Smith argues that many scientists on that panel are biased because they’ve received research grants from the EPA. His bill, which has passed the House but has yet to be taken up by the Senate, would ban EPA-funded scientists from advising the EPA and more easily allow industry-sponsored experts who have a direct interest in being regulated to serve on the panel.

Several scientists and policy experts told me they believe the BOSC dismissals are an attempt to further legitimize Smith’s claims. “I do not think I am speculating when I say that this is a political move,” said Courtney Flint, a Utah State University environmental sociology professor who was fired from BOSC this week. Richard Revesz, the director of NYU Law School’s Institute of Policy Integrity has similar concerns, and said in an email, “I worry that this administration is trying to politicize the way that science is conducted at EPA.”

Arvai said that in the 14 years he’s worked with EPA, he’s never seen such distrust of agency scientists. “I think what’s unique is this disdain for science, a disdain for scientific consensus around some key issues facing the country, climate change being one of them,” he said. “When I worked with people at the EPA when I was a consultant and Republican-appointed administrators were running the agency, I didn’t detect any of this.”

Though the firings may further politicize science, not much will change at the EPA in the short term. The BOSC’s role is to assess the quality of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD), which conducts all EPA research into environmental threats, but the BOSC is not required to review that office’s work. The ORD is fully staffed for now, but Pruitt has indicated he’d like to shuffle the agency’s research priorities away from climate science. Pruitt does not need the BOSC’s recommendation to do this.

An EPA spokesperson said the agency is undertaking a “competitive nomination process” for new BOSC members, which will likely take some time. CNN reported last month that more than 350 politically appointed positions at the EPA remained unfilled, including more than 100 scientists. Once new BOSC members are appointed, though, their advice may become even more important because Trump has proposed cutting ORD by more than 40 percent, from roughly $510 million to $290 million. With such limited resources, Burke said, ORD would be more reliant than ever on advisers to recommend what type of science to prioritize.

But Burke is preaching patience, for now. “Let’s see who gets appointed,” he said. “Maybe we’ll get some new talent and some really good people. But if we start to see a pattern of folks who are climate deniers, or advocates of various industries, then that will really change things.”