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Scientists are on alert after the latest changes at the EPA

Scientists are on high alert this week after the Environmental Protection Agency failed to renew the appointments of at least six independent researchers who served on an EPA advisory board.

The decision does not directly affect the work of the scientists who are employed by the agency. Nor was anyone fired from the Board of Scientific Counselors.

But the move will change the makeup of the 18-member committee tasked with reviewing the agency’s scientific efforts and suggesting strategic next steps to its Office of Research and Development.

Considering that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is openly skeptical about the scientific case that climate change is being fueled by human activity, the decision made some observers quite anxious.

Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, asked the agency to reconsider the decision.

“Academic scientists play a critical role in informing policy with scientific research results at every level, including the federal government,” he said in a statement Monday.

He added that he “would welcome an opportunity to meet with Administrator Scott Pruitt to discuss how scientists can best advise the Environmental Protection Agency on environmental science.”

The American Federation of Government Employees Council 238, which represents more than 9,000 EPA employees, issued a statement expressing fear about who Pruitt might select to fill the new board vacancies.

“Our concern centers on scientific integrity and whether or not the scientists eliminated from the Scientific Advisory Boards will be replaced with impartial scientists or with scientists who will operate within the arena of opinions or industry prejudice,” the group said.

That concern wasn’t completely unwarranted. EPA spokesman J.P. Freire told the New York Times that Pruitt was interested in giving industry some representation on the board.

“The administrator believes we should have people on this board who understand the impact of regulations on the regulated community,” Freire said.

Robert Richardson, an environmental economist at Michigan State University, said he was surprised to see this statement.

“This board has nothing to do with regulations,” Richardson said Monday.

He should know. Until last month, he was a member of the board.

On Friday, he was one of the scientists who was told his appointment would not be renewed.

“We’ve never been asked to comment on policy or regulation,” he said.

Traditionally, board members meet a few times a year to review the published work of EPA scientists and then offer recommendations for future directions that research might take.

For example, they might suggest that EPA scientists collaborate with researchers at other government agencies who are doing similar work, or they might recommend that scientists team with communities that may be affected by the research, Richardson said.

Members are appointed for three years at a time and can sit on the board for a total of two terms. Richardson said it is a part-time gig that rarely requires more than 60 to 80 hours of work over a three-month period.

All of the appointees have full-time jobs. The majority of them are scientists at academic institutions, but the most recent board also included people from the global engineering firm AECOM, the Alfred P. Sloane foundation and the California Energy Commission.

Of the 18 people on that board, three just completed their second term. Nine more were told in January that their appointments would probably be renewed, said Richardson, who was one of them.

That’s why he was so surprised to receive an email from the EPA Friday night letting him know that Pruitt intended to let someone else fill his seat.

Richardson took to Twitter to share the news:

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, however, he said that reports suggesting members of the board had been fired were incorrect.

“Our terms ended and we were not reappointed,” he said.

“I was given the impression by career staffers that this was unusual, but any administration has the right to appoint advisors of its own liking,” he added. “It’s not like they did anything untoward.”

deborah.netburn@latimes.com

Follow me @DeborahNetburn and "like" Los Angeles Times Science & Health on Facebook.

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