Trump's EPA Considers Merger That Could Quell Voice of Scientists

(Bloomberg) -- The Environmental Protection Agency is actively weighing a plan to merge two science offices in a bid to pare redundancies -- an effort that is feeding criticism that the agency is diminishing the stature of scientists.

Under the reorganization plan, the Office of Science Advisor and the Office of Science Policy would merge. The offices are currently located within the Office of Research and Development, and the shift would effectively downgrade the science adviser within the agency.

Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, EPA’s principal deputy assistant administrator for science said the reorganization was developed by the EPA’s Office of Research and Development “in order to reduce redundancies.”

Orme-Zavaleta cast the effort as a proposed plan and downplayed the potential effect on the agency’s work: “The fact of the matter is that the Senate-confirmed Assistant Administrator for ORD has customarily served as the EPA Science Advisor, which will continue to be the case.”

Critics say the move could diminish the role and stature of scientists at the EPA, muffling their voice in the agency’s regulatory decision making. The shift, which was described to EPA staff in a meeting Wednesday, follows other moves under President Donald Trump to alter the status of agency scientists and their outside advisers.

It also comes one day after the EPA put its children’s health chief on administrative leave. Ruth Etzel, head of the EPA’s Office of Children’s Health Protection, told colleagues that her removal wasn’t for disciplinary reasons, Bloomberg Environment reported Wednesday.

The EPA Office of Science Advisor helps coordinate scientific standards across the agency and is tasked with providing unfiltered advice to the administrator.

“By dissolving the science adviser’s office and putting it several layers down in ORD, that greatly accelerates the decay of science advice within the EPA administrator’s office,” said Michael Halpern, deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That kind of coordination is much more difficult to do if they’re buried down inside an office.”

Orme-Zavaleta has been serving as the EPA’s acting science adviser, effectively leading one of the offices that could be quashed as a part of the reorganization. Other Office of Research and Development agencies and activities also could be pared back, under the plan.

EPA staff briefed on the effort Wednesday said it was cast as a done deal, with the reorganization definitely taking place, according to two people familiar with the meeting who asked for anonymity because the session wasn’t public.

“Clearly, this is an attempt to silence voices whether it’s in the Agency’s Office of Children’s Health or the Office of the Science Advisor to kill career civil servants’ input and scientific perspectives on rulemaking," said Michael Mikulka, president of the union that represents hundreds of EPA workers and a spokesman for the Save the US EPA Campaign.

The Office of Science Advisor has shifted over time, with at least two changes during the Obama administration.

For instance, the science adviser at one time under former President Barack Obama reported to the EPA administrator and was separate from the head of the Office of Research and Development. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy recombined those roles.

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