The Environmental Protection Agency is considering an internal reorganization that it says would better align its scientific mission, but workforce groups say the reshuffling would devalue the work of federal scientists.
Under the proposed reorganization, the EPA would merge its Office of the Science Adviser with the Office of Science Policy. Both agencies fall under the Office of Research and Development (ORD).
Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, the principal deputy assistant administrator for science at ORD, and the agency’s acting science adviser, said in a statement to Federal News Radio that ORD career leadership developed the reorganization “in order to reduce redundancies in ORD operations.”
According to Orme-Zavaleta, ORD staff briefed Administrator Andrew Wheeler on its plans, and held a town hall in September to announce the results of their work.
“The fact of the matter is that the Senate-confirmed Assistant Administrator for ORD has customarily served as the EPA Science Adviser, which will continue to be the case,” she said.
However, Michael Halpern, the deputy director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the proposed reorganization move the science adviser position further down the chain of command.
“Burying the science adviser function deep within one office of EPA means that the office will be left out of a lot of high-level discussions across the agency,” Halpern said in an interview Friday.
Last month, the Union of Concerned Scientists, together with Iowa State University, released a report that found federal scientists at 16 agencies faced increased political pressure under the Trump administration.
Halpern said the proposed reorganization would continue to negatively impact morale at the agency.
“Right now, within the Office of the Science Advisor, there are high-level people who are who have the authority to implement scientific integrity policies across the agency, and are able to provide scientists with a lot of guidance on how to do their do their work responsibly,” he said. “By diminishing those functions and putting them down several layers, it sends a signal that that kind of work is not valued.”
Plans to reshuffle the EPA emerged the same week that the agency placed Ruth Etzel, the head of the Office of Children’s Health Protection, on administrative leave.
Mike Mikulka, the president of AFGE Local 704, which represents more than 900 workers in EPA Region 5, in a statement Thursday, raised concerns over both of the EPA’s decisions.
“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,” Mikulka said.