By Chris Mooney
In an expanding controversy over the role of science in the Trump administration, two expert advisers to the Environmental Protection Agency resigned Friday in protest at the dismissal of half of the members of a key science committee.
Carlos Martín, an engineer with the Urban Institute, and Peter Meyer, an economist with the E.P. Systems Group, an environmental and economic research firm, posted a joint resignation letter on Twitter, saying they were standing down to protest the agency’s decision to remove the scientists.
“We cannot in good conscience be complicit in our co-chairs’ removal, or in the watering down of credible science, engineering, and methodological rigor that is at the heart of that decision,” they wrote.
Martín and Meyer had advised the EPA science’s branch on research related to environmental contaminants and spills, the disposal of waste, and techniques for environmental cleanups.
The Trump administration has proposed to cut the budget of that branch, called the Office of Research and Development, by $233 million in 2018.
In their letter, Martín and Meyer cited in particular the failure to renew the terms of Courtney Flint, a sociologist at Utah State University, and Robert Richardson, an environmental economist at Michigan State University. Those researchers had served on the EPA’s 18-member Board of Scientific Counselors, and had co-chaired a subcommittee on “sustainable and healthy communities” whose membership included Martín and Meyer.
Martín and Meyer called the loss of their group’s leadership “a shock from which we cannot easily recover nor which we readily accept.”
“This current context suggests there is going to be an unfair amount of manipulation,” Martín, an engineer and architect who conducts social science research on built environments at the Urban Institute, said in an interview. “From the chairs themselves, to the proposed budget, to the general discussion around the fact that there might be different views put on these subcommittees and boards that aren’t scientifically rigorous.”
Martín was referring to scientists’ concerns that the EPA’s federal advisory committees under Trump will shift away from academic scientists and toward industry.
Last week, the agency decided not to renew the three year terms of half of the Board of Scientific Counselors, although the dismissed researchers said they had had previous assurances from EPA staff that they would be staying on. EPA spokesman J.P. Freire countered at the time that “no one has been fired or terminated” and that the scientists could reapply for the posts.
Members of EPA advisory committees tend to be outside academics or other types of specialists who play a part-time role.
In a statement, a spokesman for the EPA said: “EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors serve three-year terms and are reviewed every three years. Because advisory panels like BOSC play a critical role reviewing the agency’s work, EPA will consider the hundreds of nominations through a competitive nomination process. Individuals who have previously served one term can, of course, apply through the competitive process.”
Meyer suggested that process could be disruptive. “Having to start over again with brand new leadership, and leadership that, given the way our leadership has been removed, I’m not going to trust particularly, that creates a fairly substantial problem,” said Meyer in an interview.