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Ohio State professors question merits, prominence of politics within EPA

Students Dana Jackson, Malcolm Guy, Madison Bell stand with professor Robyn Wilson during a press conference on Jan. 25, 2017. Credit: Summer Cartwright | Campus Editor

The Environmental Protection Agency relies on research by scientists to address climate, energy and pollution concerns in America. Typically, researchers will provide the EPA with recommendations on environmental policy. It’s a relatively simple process, Ramiro Berardo said, “except for the fact that it’s not.”

Berardo, an assistant professor in environmental and natural-resources policy, said the increased political nature surrounding the agency has further complicated the not-so-simple relationship between science and policy.

America’s current polarized atmosphere is also contributing to an increased influence of politics in scientific research, which is a costly move, Berardo said, because it amps up “bad” science, and hinders “good” science. He said “bad” science is now being used more than ever under the Trump administration and consists of studies and data that are used specifically to support political claims regarding climate change and fossil fuel consumption.

Politicians are working this way “not to inform their scientific decisions, but to buck up the decisions that they have come up with before the science was even produced,” he said.

President Donald Trump brought forth a slew of changes within the EPA since his inauguration. Most notably, the administration has reduced the number of agency employees and prioritized different environmental goals. Trump has gone on record to disparage climate change, calling it “an expensive hoax.”

Becky Mansfield, a professor in geography, said the current administration is demonstrating denialism by seeking out lackluster research in support of its views. This denialism, she said, “has undermined current EPA regulations or potential EPA regulation.”

“We can’t simply demand facts or pretend that all things that call themselves science are in fact good,” Mansfield said. “This is used to generate uncertainty and delay action. So there becomes these inherently political debates about what counts as good or sound science.”

The Lantern made several requests for the EPA to comment. No requests were met with replies.

Berardo and Mansfield appeared Thursday at a press conference held by Defend Our Future, a nonpartisan entity that works to raise awareness of climate change. They were among four Ohio State faculty members who spoke on behalf of scientists alarmed by the EPA’s practices.

The conference was held in support of Robyn Wilson, an associate professor of risk analysis and decision science, who is suing the EPA for its newly introduced policy that forbids science advisory board members from receiving funding from the agency, a move she said directly targets academic scientists. And while Wilson spoke the longest, a constant undertone was displayed throughout each speech: resistance against the current administration.

Additionally, since EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt was sworn in on Feb. 17, 700 people — including more than 200 scientists — have left the agency, according to The New York Times and ProPublica. The EPA told The Times the decrease in numbers is due to more efficient practices. However, under the new administration, scientists like Wilson have little choice other than to resign.

The directive initiated by Pruitt “brings into question a bit of what the intentions are behind [new regulations],” Wilson said. “There’s obviously maybe another intention behind it because it’s duplicating, in my opinion, [preventive] processes already in place.”

She said the science advisory directive that affects her removes board members from institutions to make way for industry researchers who might agree with the current administration’s views on environmental issues such as climate change.

According to a report from the Center for Investigative Reporting, 68 percent of the new Science Advisory Board consists of industry-funded scientists; 14 members contributed nearly $320,000 to Pruitt’s Oklahoma state Senate campaign.

The new directives are not shocking to EPA staff members, Wilson said.

“The last time we met in person for the science advisory board was in late August and it was pretty clear,” she said of the first meeting since Trump’s inauguration. “We actually jokingly took a picture of the board to commemorate the existence of the board — so we kind of knew at the end of August that there was going to be some big changes to it coming.”

The role of science conducted by academics is crucial to EPA policy decisions, said Alia Dietsch, an assistant professor in parks, protected areas, and natural-resources management. She said while some data might support unpopular scientific claims, the scientists conducting the research aren’t the problem.

“The data itself is not the problem, it’s the decision that’s being made based on that data and that affects individuals’ lives,” Dietsch said.

Those decisions include Pruitt’s reversal of a ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide linked to developmental problems in children; funding cuts; and decreasing environmental law enforcement.

The choices being made by the EPA and its administration are politically driven, not scientifically based, Berardo said.

“Politicians want to get reelected,” he said. “Scientists are not concerned with that.”

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