Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt rejected the advice of his EPA staff in deciding not to reappoint nine scientists to the agency's Board of Scientific Counselors.
The scientists were informed Friday that they will not be asked to return now that their three-year terms have ended. Four other board members also left because they'd already served two terms, which is the maximum allowed.
This means Pruitt will fill 13 of the board's 18 seats, and he's expected to fill them with representatives from the private-sector industries the EPA regulates. His tenure as Oklahoma attorney general was marked by his close ties to the energy industry and lawsuits he brought against the EPA, and he has been explicit about his desire to make the EPA as business-friendly as possible.
"I don't disagree at all that there are terrific scientists in the private sector — they should be encouraged," said current board chair and University of Minnesota professor emerita Deborah Swackhamer. "But often you end up with a conflict of interest because we are looking at a topic on which their company is being regulated."
The Board of Scientific Counselors was created in 1996 to evaluate the science behind EPA policymaking and serve as an independent advisory arm to the EPA's Office of Research and Development. (Other federal agencies, like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, use similar advisory committees.) The positions, which are part-time and paid, are traditionally populated almost exclusively by academics and public officials; of the nine scientists whose terms were not renewed, four work in academia and five are in the public sector.
"We're an independent third party; we don't come from an administration's perspective," Swackhamer said. "We didn't come from Obama's or Bush's viewpoints. We provide independent advice, so I am saddened that there's the potential for the science to be politicized."
Swackhamer said she talked to EPA staff in February about beginning the search for people to replace the board members who would be finishing out their second terms in April. Because of the Trump administration's hiring freeze, however, Swackhamer was told that wouldn't be possible.
Then on Friday, about a week after the terms officially expired, the leadership of the Office of Research and Development informed the nine scientists eligible for another term that Pruitt's office had denied their reappointment. This, Swackhamer says, directly contradicted the recommendations of Office of Research and Development staff. Instead, the EPA would be opening up the BOSC to a "competitive" application process, which many have taken to mean that it will include people from the private sector.
Swackhamer, who has a year left on her BOSC term, says she found out "after the press did" that Pruitt would not be renewing her board's members.
"EPA received hundreds of nominations to serve on the board, and we want to ensure fair consideration of all the nominees — including those nominated who may have previously served on the panel — and carry out a competitive nomination process," EPA spokesperson J.P. Freire said in a statement.
The EPA had not returned multiple requests for additional comment on Swackhamer's version of events. This story will be updated if it does.
VICE News spoke with several scientists who currently serve on the BOSC or whose terms recently ended, including two whose renewal was denied by EPA leadership. Some labeled Pruitt's move politically opportunistic, while others were more circumspect.
Nearly all explicitly expressed concern over Pruitt's actions since taking over as EPA administrator in mid-February. In that time, he has publicly doubted the role humans have had in climate change, called for making the coal industry great again, and helped shape a Trump budget that calls for sweeping cuts to the EPA.
The dismissal of the scientists could affect "the ability of the EPA to develop scientifically sound policy and programs," said John Tharakan, a former two-term board member and professor at Howard University.
"It's clear from the reports in the media that the current administration has said that they want to replace board positions held by academic scientists with members from industry, so I do not think I'm speculating when I say that this is a political move," Utah State professor Courtney Flint, a board member who was eligible for renewal, said in a statement. "In our review of [EPA] programs, the BOSC has been careful to avoid partisanship in our scientific recommendations."
Others said they saw such a move coming or were more open to the idea of including representatives of the private sector in the BOSC.
"I've served on many advisory committees with representatives from private industry, and I don't see anything wrong with that, as long as all the members are vetted for possible conflicts of interest," University of Utah biology professor Diane Pataki said in an email. "[It] is quite a lot of turnover at once. Hopefully these positions will be filled promptly!"