Science advisory boards see major cuts and controversial changes under Trump administration

“From what I have heard from members of the EPA who are still there, the idea the best thing is to keep your head down.”

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Image Credit: Environmental Defense Fund

The Trump administration’s anti-climate science agenda has promoted never-ending changes since Trump took office two years ago. This week several former Environmental Protection Agency officials spoke up on the budget cuts and political influence the agency is experiencing.

Former EPA administrators spoke with members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee this week on the political interference with scientists in the federal workforce.

Although Congress has so far managed to stall the Trump administration’s efforts to cut the EPA budget by a third these past few years, there have been catastrophic changes to the agency in the form of slashing the science advisory boards and pushback against certain kinds of scientific research.

“From what I have heard from members of the EPA who are still there, the idea the best thing is to keep your head down,” said Christine Todd Whitman, former EPA administrator. “If you have something that you believe is contrary to where you think the administration wants to see, then you have to be very careful about how you come forward with it.”

The Trump administration has found loopholes when their efforts to defund research it devalues fail. “While efforts to defund ORD research have been unsuccessful, scientists at management levels across the agency, including ORD, have been transferred to new offices and given new assignments that are at times far afield of their current responsibilities,” wrote Gina McCarthy, former EPA administrator, in her testimony.

Moreover, the EPA has placed restrictions on who can sit on the board or expert panels, banning anyone that has received grant fundraising from the agency but does not place any limitations on allowing industry scientists with conflicts of interest.

In June Trump’s decision to slash the number of science advisory boards by a third sparked outrage from the scientific community. “It’s no longer death by a thousand cuts. It’s taking a knife to the jugular,” said Gretchen Goldman, research director with the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“This is another example of how disconnected the Trump administration is from the needs of the American people and how to protect them from harm,” said Mustafa Ali, former senior adviser for environmental justice at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Science advisory committees advise the executive branch on a multitude of issues including nuclear waste disposal, climate change, pollution, public health dangers, drug addiction, and school improvements. The Trump administration has been “shrinking and restricting the role of federal science advisory committees” since its beginning.

Last year, EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler “disbanded a 20-member scientific advisory committee on particulate matter, failed to convene a similar panel on ozone, and packed a seven-member advisory committee on air quality standards with industry-friendly participants.”

In addition to gutting science advisory committees, the Trump administration has been on a crusade to dismantle science-based agencies. 1,600 employees left the EPA during Trump’s first year, leaving the total number of employees there the lowest in 30 years.

In July, several scientists and researchers spoke at a hearing with the U.S. Natural Resources Committee on how their work has been stifled, delayed, questioned, and even retaliated against. Maria Caffrey, a research assistant with the National Park Service (NPS), stated that the NPS made “explicit attempts to get me to remove references to anthropogenic or human-caused climate change from my report” on the effects of sea-level rise on coastal parks.

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