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Joe Biden’s purge at the EPA

I was surprised and saddened to learn that the Biden administration decided to terminate all 42 members of the EPA Science Advisory Board (SAB). For the first time in SAB’s 42-year history, a new EPA administrator will receive scientific advice only from scientists that they personally appoint. It is a clear political move that truly is unprecedented.

It is well-documented that the Trump administration was dismissive of science in many ways. But that does not mean that every science move by the Trump EPA was wrong. With its purge of the EPA’s SAB, the Biden EPA reinforced the “cancel culture” that former President Trump promoted.

The purported rationale for the radical and political purge is that the Trump administration’s EPA in 2017 banned scientists who had received EPA grants from membership on the SAB, a restriction that was ruled arbitrary by a federal appeals court. Thus, the argument goes, the court decision forced the Biden EPA to take this radical step.

The legal argument is a smokescreen. It ignores the fact that the most recent slate of scientists appointed to SAB by the Trump administration’s EPA in 2020 complied with the court’s decision, yet those highly qualified scientists were also purged by Mr. Biden. Instead, the Biden administration’s EPA is selecting an entirely new group of scientists with views aligned with President Biden’s agenda, even though SAB was never intended to be an arm of a political administration.

Independent scientific review of EPA policies helps to prevent bad policies and make good policies even better because it ensures that advances in scientific knowledge are considered. Including scientists with different policy perspectives stimulates a comprehensive, rigorous examination of the evidence. 

Even though the number of Obama-era appointees to the SAB diminished from 2017 to 2020, some were reappointed to a second three-year term by the Trump administration’s EPA, as is typical at SAB. Their differing backgrounds from the Trump-era appointees helped ensure a robust inquiry of science claims, a dynamic that occurred during every previous administration.

Instead of the purge, the Biden administration’s EPA should have investigated the performance of each member of the SAB and evaluated the overall objectivity of the SAB’s reports. They would have found that a hard-working, diverse SAB exercised remarkable independence. SAB criticized the scientific foundation of Mr. Trump’s deregulatory initiatives affecting everything from motor vehicle pollution to federal protection of water quality.

SAB criticized the Trump administration’s EPA for omitting and downplaying public health benefits, overlooking the privacy interests of patients enrolled in public-health studies, and imposing unrealistic requirements for cost-benefit analysis of new regulations.

Progressive groups feared that SAB would produce reports biased toward industry interests, but the independent SAB committees produced consensus reports which, after rigorous quality review, did not exhibit pro-industry bias. Several high-profile, pro-industry Trump initiatives were scaled back, withdrawn, or overturned in court due to the objective SAB reports.

The more dangerous aspect of the Biden administration’s EPA “reset” at SAB is that it will invite future administrations to follow this practice. Why take the risk of hearing advice from scientists who might be skeptical of your agenda when you can appoint your own experts?

A key pillar in SAB’s independence is the staggered three-year term, where no more than one third of the scientists on SAB are replaced each year.  Members willing to serve a second three-year term are normally reappointed. This has made it impossible for new EPA administrators to do precisely what the Mr. Biden’s EPA is likely to do: stack the SAB with their policy allies in the science community.

The Biden administration says they will allow all 42 purged scientists to “recompete” for their positions, but the final decisions on those members will also be made by the same administration appointee who purged them in the first place.

What the EPA should do is make new appointments to SAB — increasing the size of SAB if necessary — to supply expertise where SAB is weakest: climate science, clean energy technology and environmental justice. The new expertise is crucial to proper review of the new policy priorities that Mr. Biden has set for EPA. As Vice Chair Dr. Barbara Beck and I explained to new EPA administrator Michael Regan, that goal could have been accomplished without the purge and without the dangerous precedent that has been set.

In one fell swoop, the Biden administration team at EPA has put its policy agenda ahead of the principle of scientific integrity.  Regretfully, now we are likely to see more of that behavior in the years ahead.

• John D. Graham is the Professor of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University and former chair, EPA Science Advisory Board.

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