Key Takeaway: Scientists are responding to efforts by the Trump Administration to eliminate federal advisory committees by providing research-based evidence to shape decision-making.
A year ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency disbanded one of many independent scientific review panels, saying the 20-member group focused on air quality standards was slowing the regulatory process. Undaunted, the same group of scientists is meeting Thursday and Friday outside Washington D.C., to try to ensure that science-based research remains relevant amid the current deregulatory environment.
“The disbanding of the panel is just one example of the assault on independent science advice by the current federal administration,” H. Christopher Frey, an environmental engineering professor at North Carolina State University and chair of what has become known as the Independent Particulate Review Panel, told Karma before the meetings.
In fact, it’s one of at least 100 examples of anti-science actions undertaken by the Trump Administration tracked by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit organization which is sponsoring the revamped panel’s meetings, according to Gretchen Goldman, research director of its Center for Science and Democracy. Another report released this week by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice argues that attacks on the integrity of federal science research have reached “a crisis point, with almost weekly violations of previously respected safeguards.”
“The disbanding of the panel is just one example of the assault on independent science advice by the current federal administration.”
Before it was disbanded by the EPA in 2018, what was then known as the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee Particulate Matter Review Panel focused on the impact of PM2.5 — soot and other tiny particles in the air — that research has shown cause illness and death. More than 20 million Americans live in areas that exceed the current air quality standard for particulate matter, according to Frey, so it’s far from an academic distinction.
“If there was ever an example of the administration cutting science out of decision making, it’s this panel,” says Goldman. “This is a process that has worked well for decades and allowed science to inform decisions on ambient air quality despite tremendous pressure from politicians and industry to not listen to the science.”
And the former EPA panel isn’t alone — the Trump Administration has made a full-throated effort to eliminate many such groups, issuing an executive order in June ordering federal agencies to eliminate at least one-third of federal advisory committees.
An Advisory Role
The EPA historically has used panels like the one on particulate matter to inform advisory committees that are too small to have the breadth of scientific expertise to understand research across the full spectrum of environmental issues. The clean air committee’s members said as much earlier this year when they unsuccessfully asked the EPA administrator to reconvene the panel or a similar one, said Frey. Particulate research is important beyond the EPA, as a wide range of agencies use it to weigh costs against benefits for regulations.
“This is something that has happened for four decades, but now is under threat,” says Frey. “Thus, we are convening ourselves to provide the EPA with the advice it needs.”
The now-independent panel will deliberate during this week’s meeting — starting a year to the date after it was disbanded — and submit written comments to the agency as if it were still an official group, following the same procedures as it did in its earlier capacity. The EPA has said it would consider all public comments as its committee and administrative staff review clean air standards; It is obligated by law to do so.
“I expect that EPA will give due consideration to our comments and advice,” Frey said. If the agency does not, he added, “I would not be surprised if any decision by the EPA from this review is challenged in court as a result of ad hoc procedural irregularities introduced in the last two years, including the disbanding of our panel.”
While the Union of Concerned Scientists is supporting the panel’s deliberations, Goldman is quick to say she doesn’t want this to become precedent.
“I’m blown away by the degree to which the scientific community is willing to step up on these issues,” Goldman said. “[But] it’s the EPA’s job to do this. They’ve abdicated the responsibility, so we’re stepping up. ”