No room for science in Trump administration

Scientist dismissed from EPA breaks silence
Scientist dismissed from EPA breaks silence

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Story highlights

  • Christine Todd Whitman: EPA administrator's decision not to renew the appointments of nine scientific advisors shows a move away from science as the backbone of the EPA and other key federal agencies
  • Trump administration's apparent disdain for science threatens to drain talent from the US, turn it into a backwater nation, she writes

Christine Todd Whitman is the president of The Whitman Strategy Group (WSG), a consulting firm that specializes in energy and environmental issues. She is the former Governor of New Jersey and former Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under George W. Bush. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN)On Monday, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt declined to renew the terms of nine of the 18 scientists on the EPA's Board of Scientific Counselors. According to an EPA spokesperson, this change was made in order to bring different scientists into the mix, including industry ones.

Christine Todd Whitman
This dismissal, which is unprecedented in recent presidential history, represents yet another data point in the Trump Administration's trend away from science as the backbone of the EPA and other key federal agencies. It is appropriate to have one representative from industry on the panel that reviews the EPA's work -- after all, those industry researchers know best how they will be affected by particular regulations.
But the remainder of the board should be made up of research scientists who understand the effects of chemicals and whose primary concern is ensuring standards that will not harm human health and the environment. Ongoing research and development cannot be dominated by those who have an economic interest in the outcome.
The dismissals are particularly troubling since they are one of a number of developments in an administration which appears to take a diminished view of science.
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President Trump has not yet filled nearly fifty key science and technology positions throughout the federal government. While Obama also did not fill these posts immediately, Trump's pace is far slower than his predecessor. His administration has also proposed sharp cuts to science programs and the agencies that depend on them .
Where the EPA has hired new scientists, they have been relatively junior. Although I agree that it is important to develop the next generation of leaders, losing the collective wisdom and institutional knowledge of more experienced researchers is ill-advised and inefficient. The time wasted by starting over on various projects is crucial in terms of dollars spent and potential damage to the environment in the time it takes to restart.
The fact that the Trump administration seems to have a fundamental disdain for science threatens to turn the United States into a backwater nation. French president-elect Emmanuel Macron has already invited climate scientists to do their work in France, and China is also offering research and development opportunities in this field.
We are going to be left behind both environmentally and economically if we do not foster an atmosphere of research discovery. EPA scientists are not merely protecting the environment, they are finding new breakthroughs. Private enterprise does not develop all of our new technologies; government scientists develop new ways of working that ultimately lead to jobs created. It is troubling to potentially lose a significant source of our nation's innovation because we have turned our back on rigorous research.
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Denigrating the importance of basic scientific research will also put a damper on students looking for career options. If the message they are getting is that science isn't that important and that fundamental research is not going to be supported, they will move to other career choices. In this fast-changing world, it's the American people who will lose.
The EPA is charged with protecting human health and the environment -- two resources that cannot be replaced. I urge President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt to embrace the scientific rigor that will enable the agency to protect the American people.