At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), acting chief Andrew Wheeler is overseeing a disturbing reorganization of resources.
He now plans to eliminate the EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor (OSA), the post responsible for advising the EPA chief on scientific research that informs the agency’s regulations.
This is the latest attempt to “streamline” federal agencies, as the Trump Administration touts it, for greater operational efficiency. Yet so far, a dubious number of cutbacks have involved EPA scientists. What we’re really looking at is the agency’s systematic efforts to undermine science and its impact on federal policy.
Why Do We Need OSA?
According to the EPA’s website, it’s OSA’s job to ensure only the highest quality science is used to back policies and decisions across the agency. The current science adviser, Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, has worked with the EPA since 1981 on the risks of chemicals to human health.
Asked about the decision to dissolve her post, Orme-Zavaleta said it was made to “combine offices with similar functions” and “eliminate redundancies.”
It is yet unclear how that would affect her employment with the EPA or how her duties would be delegated. We do know, however, that Wheeler plans to merge OSA with the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD). And this kind of merger could make it “considerably easier” for Wheeler to “ignore scientific input when making decisions,” one expert told the press.
“The scientific integrity office is within the Office of Science Advisor, and currently that office can investigate allegations of suppression or distortion or manipulation of science in all EPA offices,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science & Democracy with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Embedding the position within [ORD] makes it more difficult for the scientific integrity officer to investigate allegations either within the office or in other EPA offices.”
And that could have a direct impact on regulatory outcomes.
How Will Science Advisers Work Now?
When merged, OSA would no longer report directly to the EPA chief, but to the agency’s Deputy Assistant Administrator for Science, according to the New York Times. The demotion would put at least 2 gatekeepers between Wheeler and the EPA’s chief scientist. Yet it’s critical to keep Wheeler in the “direct pipeline” of science advice, Halpern explained. Otherwise: “Everything from research on chemicals and health, to peer-review testing to data analysis would inevitably suffer.”
One target would be the recently amended Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which is already suffering under Trump-appointed EPA leadership’s rollback of the new rules. Before Wheeler, then-chief Scott Pruitt made several moves to weaken the assessment of dangerous chemicals. He proposed a “secret science” policy, for example, that would suppress action on carcinogens like asbestos, the only known cause of mesothelioma and other fatal conditions. Under Pruitt, the EPA also tried to block release of a critical study on formaldehyde.
And that wasn’t long after Pruitt began a drastic reinvention of the agency, firing senior scientists without notice or reason. Wheeler, an ex-coal lobbyist, seems only to be continuing Pruitt’s work. Just days ago, the EPA placed its head of the Office of Children’s Health, Dr. Ruth Etzel, on administrative leave – again, without notice or reason. She was known to push for tighter regulations on pollution.
“Clearly, this is an attempt to silence voices – whether it’s in the agency’s Office of Children’s Health or the Office of the Science Advisor – to kill career civil servants’ input and scientific perspectives on rule-making,” said Michael Mikulka, president of a union that represents EPA employees.
Ultimately, the merger could make independent EPA scientists “vulnerable to political interference,” Halpern added. It could threaten the very scientific integrity of the EPA – not to mention environmental health. There’s no getting around it, he said: Administrators need “unfiltered science advice.”