EPA to merge two key science offices and disband office focused on science grants

EPA to merge two key science offices and disband office focused on science grants
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The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will merge two key science offices as part of an overhaul of the Office of Research Development (ORD), the EPA confirmed to The Hill Thursday.

ORD leadership announced to staff Wednesday that it will move forward with plans to reorganize multiple offices housed under ORD, the scientific research arm of EPA.

Offices with “similar functions” will be funneled into two new offices: the administrative focused Office of Resource Management and the science focused Office of Science Integration and Policy, an EPA spokesperson told the Hill.

The new science office will combine the agency’s Office of Science Policy and the Office of the Science Advisor into one, which environmentalists fear will shrink the voice of scientists at EPA.

The EPA official said the mergers will “reduce redundancies in our operations, streamline management oversight, and better align our structure with the resources we have.”

The Office of the Science Advisor, as described on EPA's website, provides leadership across the agency on science policy development and implementation issues It is currently lead by EPA Science Advisor Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, who has been at EPA since 1981.

The Office of Science Policy focuses on incorporating ORD's own science and technology into the EPA's regulatory actions. It's headed by Fred Hauchman, who has worked at EPA for over 30 years.

An ORD spokesperson said Orme-Zavaleta was out of town and not available for comment Thursday. A voicemail box for Hauchman said he'd be out of town until October 1 and to contact the directory in his absence.

Additionally, the reorganization would disband the National Center for Environmental Research (NCER), a federal environmental office that works to test the effects of chemical exposure on adults and children.

The NCER is largely known for the funding it provides through its premier program, Science To Achieve Results (STAR). Under the STAR program, grants are given to the Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers, which were established in 1988 to discover methods to reduce children's health risks from environmental factors.

Under the reorganization, “relevant functions” of NCER will be distributed among the two new offices including the STAR grants management, the official said.

The Hill was first to report on the planned reorganization in February. Officials at the time said the reorganization would also include merging EPA’s Office of Administrative and Research Support, the Office of Program Accountability and Resource Management, and the office that handles Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

Michael Halpern, a deputy director of the Union of Concerned Scientists called the changes within the science offices alarming.

“Any time you try to merge science and policy functions there tends to be confusion. That’s why a lot of the laws EPA implements like the Clean Air Act have separate sections for the science and the policy,” he said.

“Muddying the waters makes it much easier for the science to be politicized or misrepresented.”

Halpern surmised that the new rearrangement will likely bury the office farther down the totem pole from the EPA Administrator's office.

"We’ve seen what happens when an office gets de-prioritized, they become less visible. The office of environmental justice, which is a shell of what it was before, the Office of Children Health Protection would be equally vulnerable. It's the more cross cutting programs that tend to be the most vulnerable to politicization," he said.

Earlier in the week the EPA reportedly placed the director of its Office of Children’s Health Protection Director Dr. Ruth Etzel on administrative leave without explanation. Etzel told reporters she believed the move was done to ultimately shrink the office, an accusation EPA officials denied to The Hill.

EPA did not respond to requests about who will be leading the new offices or when the merger will officially commence but said there would be no reductions of full time staff as a result of the changes.