It wasn’t long after Donald Trump and his team took office that they looked for ways to make things easier for polluters. Among the first steps was overhauling the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board: many scholars with academic backgrounds were out, scientists with industry ties were in.
In an unexpected twist, however, despite Team Trump moving the EPA’s Scientific Advisory Board to the right, it’s still not on board with the White House’s agenda. The New York Times reported this week:
A top panel of government-appointed scientists, many of them hand-selected by the Trump administration, said on Tuesday that three of President Trump’s most far-reaching and scrutinized proposals to weaken major environmental regulations are at odds with established science.
Draft letters posted online Tuesday by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scientific Advisory Board, which is responsible for evaluating the scientific integrity of the agency’s regulations, took aim at the Trump administration’s rewrite of an Obama-era regulation of waterways, an Obama-era effort to curb planet-warming vehicle tailpipe emissions and a plan to limit scientific data that can be used to draft health regulations.
A Washington Post report added, “While previous administrations have occasionally pushed back at findings from scientific advisers, or ignored them altogether, friction between the group and the EPA has escalated under Trump – even though nearly two-thirds of its 44 members were appointed by him.”
The practical implications of this are real, to the extent that the courts may take note of the advisory board’s ignored guidance. Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor, said, “The courts basically say if you’re going to ignore the advice of your own experts you have to have really good reasons for that. And not just policy reasons but reasons that go to the merits of what the critiques are saying.”
But the implications for the role of scientists in governmental decision making is just as significant – and far more alarming.
The New York Times had a separate report over the weekend, highlighting the degree to which the Trump has “diminished” science’s role at the federal level, creating changes that could “reverberate for years.”
Political appointees have shut down government studies, reduced the influence of scientists over regulatory decisions and in some cases pressured researchers not to speak publicly. The administration has particularly challenged scientific findings related to the environment and public health opposed by industries such as oil drilling and coal mining. It has also impeded research around human-caused climate change, which President Trump has dismissed despite a global scientific consensus.
But the erosion of science reaches well beyond the environment and climate: In San Francisco, a study of the effects of chemicals on pregnant women has stalled after federal funding abruptly ended. In Washington, D.C., a scientific committee that provided expertise in defending against invasive insects has been disbanded. In Kansas City, Mo., the hasty relocation of two agricultural agencies that fund crop science and study the economics of farming has led to an exodus of employees and delayed hundreds of millions of dollars in research.
The Times quoted Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, saying, “The disregard for expertise in the federal government is worse than it’s ever been. It’s pervasive.”
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