Science matters: Thankfully, EPA leadership once again agrees
In order for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to fulfill its mission “to protect human health and the environment,” it must use the best available science. I know of no area for which a commitment to science is more important than the independent science reviews conducted by EPA’s Science Advisory Board (SAB) and Clean Air Science Advisory Committee (CASAC). The commitment to science-driven decision-making was buried during the Trump administration, but the new administration is getting it right.
During the last five years of my 38-year career as scientist at EPA, I served as director of the EPA office that directs the SAB and CASAC. These committees provide invaluable and independent advice to the EPA administrator on critical issues such as setting air pollution standards at levels that protect people’s health.
For this reason, I was very pleased but not surprised at EPA Administrator Michael Regan’s recent announcement identifying newly selected members of the SAB and CASAC. This was a giant step toward his commitment to reconstitute the SAB and CASAC with an extremely qualified, diverse group of scientists from industry, academia and science organizations. With these newly selected members of the SAB and CASAC, it is obvious that the agency is committed to high-quality, independent science to guide its policies and decisions.
Regan explained that his decision to reset the federal advisory committees by asking all previous members to step down emphasizes the importance of the SAB and the CASAC to EPA’s mission, and “seeks to reverse deficiencies caused by decisions made in recent years.” Regan further explained that “process irregularities” led him to direct the SAB staff office “to initiate the release of current members of the SAB and the CASAC; to reconstitute, restore and create new committees to better address EPA priorities; and to augment both the SAB and CASAC with specialized panels.”
Following this action, two ranking minority members on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform sent a letter to Regan on April 7 advising him they were opening an investigation into what they called his decision to “abruptly fire all Trump administration appointed members” of the SAB and CASAC, and demanding he produce an inordinate amount of information and documents, including between the White House and EPA, to explain and justify his decision.
Imagine my surprise — considering there was no such concern in 2017 when I was directed by then EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to fire every member of a scientific board who received an EPA grant, while retaining scientists that received industry grants? Where was the pushback when Pruitt arbitrarily reduced the term limits for advisory board members in half, increasing the turnover from 18 percent to 36 percent; disbanded two committees under CASAC; and replaced 50 of the nation’s leading experts on air pollution with seven members who collectively did not have the expertise necessary to conduct mandated reviews?
Furthermore, there were multiple changes to the hiring process as names and decisions were handed from the top down in a way that reversed years of involving career staff in providing detailed analyses and recommendations to ensure that advisory committee members were best qualified to fill the needs of EPA. Pruitt later resigned his position as EPA administrator under a cloud of ethics scandals.
These actions broke with 30 years of precedent, crossing multiple Republican and Democratic administrations, and left the SAB and CASAC committees lacking the scientific credibility and trust critical to their effectiveness. Some of these actions were subsequently determined to be illegal and drew the attention and criticism of numerous independent science organizations.
I also recall no objection by members of Congress when Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s successor under Trump, eliminated EPA’s Office of the Science Advisor, which counseled the administrator on research supporting health and environmental standards; 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.
Throughout my nearly four-decade career serving this country, until the election of Donald Trump in 2016, White House and EPA leadership in both parties consistently recognized the importance of science. And while priorities and/or emphasis may have changed from administration to administration, they all respected science and never tried to manipulate it to benefit special interests. EPA leadership always recognized that scientists from industry have considerable expertise to contribute to the review process and were consistently represented on every review committee.
From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, we witnessed the consequences of an American president and his administration not utilizing the best science to make informed decisions. Tragically, the sidelining of the nation’s most well-respected scientists by the Trump administration is well-established as one of the key reasons America’s losses to COVID-19 were so high compared to other developed nations.
In every action since being confirmed, Regan has demonstrated his commitment to uphold EPA’s 50-year-old mission to protect public health and the environment, restore scientific integrity inside the agency, and utilize the best science and the best scientists to protect Americans. I am grateful that the current administrator views the reset of EPA’s independent science advisory committees as critical to achieving these goals and everyone, including members of Congress, should be grateful, as well.
Christopher Zarba is the former director of EPA’s Science Advisory Board.