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Former EPA scientists stunned by proposed cuts

The Trump administration’s proposal to cut the Environmental Protection Agency is looking dramatic indeed. The plans call for laying off thousands of staff; eliminating entire programs; and making deep cuts to the agency’s research office, the Office of Research and Development, or ORD, according to recent reporting by The Washington Post.

That’s not to say all of this will happen — or that any of it will. Congress makes the final decisions on funding the government. But it’s a stunning proposal to researchers familiar with the workings of the EPA.

‘‘I think a deep cut would be devastating to the nation’s capacity to do environmental health and ecosystem research,’’ said Jonathan Samet, a former chair of the agency’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee who is now a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California.


Samet and two other former EPA science officials — Thomas A. Burke, who served as the agency’s science adviser and headed up the ORD under former president Barack Obama, and Bernard Goldstein, who was the EPA’s assistant administrator for research and development under former president Ronald Reagan — went even further in a commentary published Wednesday, calling on President Trump to change course and stand up for the agency and science.

‘‘Evidence-based decision making on the environment should not be abandoned,’’ the two scientists write in an essay in the New England Journal of Medicine. ‘‘Reasoned action and acknowledgment of scientific truth are fundamental to democracy, public health, and economic growth. Scientific evidence does not change when the administration changes.’’

The researchers now all hold academic posts. They describe the EPA’s Office of Research and Development as the ‘‘preeminent environmental research organization, a cornerstone of our global leadership in environmental science, and a key player in the training of environmental health scientists.’’ The ORD had a budget of $521 million in 2015 with a staff of 1,755.


The Post reported Wednesday that the administration is considering a proposal to cut this office by ‘‘up to 42 percent.’’

There are many reasons that would be devastating, Samet said in an interview. One of them is that when environmental crises happen, like the Flint, Mich., or Deepwater Horizon disasters, you need a science infrastructure that’s ready to move. In these crises ‘‘that demand research and environmental surveillance and quickly trying to assess the toxicity of agents, the nation needs the capacity that ORD has,’’ Samet said.

Samet and his coauthors aren’t the only academic scientists standing up for the EPA right now. Others are reacting to the first of many expected environmental rollbacks — Trump’s executive order this week directing the agency to rescind the ‘‘Waters of the U.S.’’ rule, which sweeps many smaller waterways under the protections of the Clean Water Act.

Seven presidents of scientific organizations representing more than 200,000 members have signed a letter opposing the executive order. The researchers argued the rule was based on solid science when it comes to the understanding of the importance of wetlands and how they relate to larger bodies of water.

The scientific societies weighing in are the Society of Wetland Scientists, the American Fisheries Society, the American Institute of Biological Sciences, the Ecological Society of America, the Phycological Society of America, the Society for Ecological Restoration, and the Society for Freshwater Science.

The more Trump and his administration propose environmental rollbacks and cuts to environmental or other science funding, the more researchers can be expected to speak out. Thousands are expected to march on Washington, and around the globe, on April 22 — Earth Day.