Scott Pruitt

EPA Bureaucracy Strikes Back: The Case of the Board of Scientific Counselors

How will the struggle between the permanent bureaucracy and the EPA's new leadership play out?



In the 1980s British sitcom Yes, Minister, Department of Administrative Affairs Permanent Secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby regularly frustrated the efforts of the Department's Minister Rt Hon Jim Hacker MP to enact reforms, reduce bureaucracy, or change policy. In fact, Sir Humphrey seeks, as a matter of principle, to uphold and maintain the status quo in the civil service. This notably includes maintaining the prestige, power and influence of the civil service. Consequently, Sir Humphrey seeks to stymie any efforts that Hacker makes toward preventing the expansion of the civil service or reducing the complexity of its bureaucracy. From the point of view of the bureaucrats, as Sir Humphrey observes, "It makes very little difference who the Minister is."

The efforts of the permanent bureaucracy at the Environmental Protection Agency to hand the the new political leadership a fait accompli regarding the membership of that agency's Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC) brought to mind the antics of Yes, Minister. The civil servants at the EPA had apparently assured the members of the BOSC whose three-year terms were ending that they could stay on for another term just as the Obama administration was winding down in January. Since the terms for more than half of the BOSC's members ran out in late April, the agency bureaucrats essentially went to the new EPA leadership with the old list of Obama administration appointees at the last minute and said, "Sign this."

The new team appointed by Trump declined to do so. Scorned bureaucrats then leaked the decision to the media shaping the narrative as a Trumpian anti-science "firing" of brave truth-tellers. The Washington Post and the New York Times duly reported just that story. But is it so? "We're not going to rubber-stamp the last administration's appointees. Instead, they should participate in the same open competitive process as the rest of the applicant pool," EPA spokesperson J.P. Freire told the Post. "This approach is what was always intended for the board, and we're making a clean break with the last administration's approach."

Rifling through the Federal Advisory Committee Act database, I find that the terms of 12 members of the BOSC officially expired on April 27, 2017. Another ended in March. Composed of outside researchers, the 18-member BOSC is supposed to provide objective and independent counsel to the agency's Office of Research and Development (ORD). The committee aids the ORD on research and development with the aim of identifying, understanding, and solving current and future environmental problems; by reviewing ORD's technical support to EPA's program and regional offices; by providing leadership in assisting ORD in identifying emerging environmental issues; and by helping to advance the science and technology of risk assessment and risk management.

BOSC members are must be nationally recognized experts in science or engineering. The board should be balanced in disciplines, diversity, and geographic distribution area and include representatives from academia, government, industry, environmental consulting firms, and environmental associations.

Last May, the agency issued a BOSC Membership Balance Plan that among other things noted that approximately 8 months prior to expiration of committee members' terms the DFO [designated federal officer] starts devising an outreach plan for new committeee members. Among other things, the DFO is supposed to solicit candidate names through a Federal Register notice and from individuals who are actively engaged in interests relating to environmental scientific and technical fields, human health care professions, academia, industry, public and private research institutes and organizations, and other relevant interest areas. The DFO reviews the pool of nominees screening out lobbyists and checking for conflicts of interest while seeking a balance of points of view. As the Membership Balance Plan notes the list of nominees is reviewed by "different levels of EPA managers" before formal letters of invitation are sent out. The Plan notes that "members are usually appointed for a three-year term. Generally, members may be reappointed for a total of 6 years."

In this case, the EPA bureaucrats in charge of finding and vetting nominees for the BOSC were evidently satisfied with the members who had been appointed during the Obama administration. Spot checking the BOSC's history, it does appear that in recent years, committee members have generally served two 3-year terms.

EPA spokesperson J.P. Freire released this statement: "Advisory panels like BOSC play a critical role reviewing the agency's work. EPA received hundreds of nominations to serve on the board, and we want to ensure fair consideration of all the nominees – including those nominated who may have previously served on the panel – and carry out a competitive nomination process." The EPA plans solicit nominees through the Federal Register and to select new board members quickly. (I reached out to the agency to clear up which and how many BOSC members are not being re-appointed. I have not heard back yet.)

So which members are not being re-appointed? The news reports say that the appointments of up to 9 members are not being renewed. According to the database these 13 members terms are over.

Viney Aneja—North Carolina State University professor of air quality

Shahid Chaudhry—California Energy Commission mechanical engineer

Susan Cozzens—Georgia Tech Sociologist of science

Courtney Flint—Utah State University Natural Resource Sociologist

Earthea Nance—Texas Southern University Civil & Environmental Engineering

Paula Olsiewski—Sloan Foundation Biochemist

Kenneth Reckhow—Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology at Duke University

Robert Richardson—Michiagan State University Ecological Economist

Sandra Smith—Principal Toxicologist AECOM Consultancy

Gina Solomon—California EPA (Former senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council)

Ponisseril Somasundaran- Columbia University Professor of Mineral Engineering

John Thakaran—Howard University Biochemical engineering

Tammy Taylor—Chief Operating Officer of the National Security Directorate at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

The terms of three other members will expire this summer.

Lisa Dilling—University of Colorado biologist

Diane Pataki—University of Utah ecologist

Joseph Rodricks—Principal Arlington of Environ International Corporation toxicologist

Predictably, activists are outraged. "This is completely part of a multifaceted effort to get science out of the way of a deregulation agenda," said Ken Kimmell, the president of the Union of Concerned Scientists to the Times. Clearly to Kimmel's mind, science could never support deregulation or declining to regulate.

The FACA requires that the membership of the committees be "fairly balanced in terms of points of view presented and the functions to be performed by the advisory committee." Of course, members of federal advisory committees like the BOSC are subject conflicts of interest regulations. It will be interesting to see how this struggle between the agency's new leadership and the permanent bureaucracy plays out. I will keep readers posted.