Biden environmental challenge: Filling vacant scientist jobs

by Joseph K. Clark

Polluting factories go uninspected by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Leadership positions sit vacant at the U.S. Geological Survey’s climate science centers. And U.S. Department of Agriculture’s research into environmental issues important to farmers is unfinished.

Federal data shows that the ranks of scientists who carry out environmental research, enforcement, and other jobs fell in several agencies — sharply in some — under former President Donald Trump. Veteran staffers say many retired, quit, or moved to other agencies amid pressure from an administration they regarded as hostile to science and beholden to industry.

environmental challenge

That poses a challenge for President Joe Biden, who must rebuild a depleted and demoralized workforce to make good on promises to tackle climate change, protect the environment and reduce pollution that disproportionately affects poor and minority communities.

“It’s going to take a long time to undo the damage that the Trump administration has done,” said Kyla Bennett, a former EPA enforcement official. She now directs science policy for Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group. Bennett said many scientists left as Trump’s administration rolled back regulations and undercut climate work, leaving agencies with less experience, a work backlog, and unfinished research.

Employment data shows more than 670 science jobs lost at the EPA, 150 at the U.S. Geological Survey, which researches human-caused climate change and natural hazards, and 231 at the Fish and Wildlife Service.

At the USDA, more than one-third of staff members — almost 200 people — left the agency’s Economic Research Service and its National Institute of Food and Agriculture in Fiscal Year 2019, after the Trump administration moved their jobs from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City.

“The loss of experienced staff was deep,” said spokesman Matt Herrick, who provided figures showing even deeper losses at one point. “We lost too many of the nation’s best economists and agricultural scientists.”

Gone are specialists working on crops, wetland loss, climate policy, and soil conservation, said Laura Dodson, acting vice president of the union representing research service workers.

The findings on science job losses are based on payroll records released to the advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists through public records request and on USDA attrition data.

Not all agencies saw drops under Trump, and the drain of science jobs from USGS and EPA pre-dated him. ACCORDING TO BUDGET DOCUMENTS, the EPA lost more than 3,500 employees — 22% of its workforce — over the past two decades. At the USGS, 1,230 science jobs have been lost since 2000, a 17% drop.

Priorities change from one presidency to the next, said Daren Bakst, a senior fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation. Under Trump, the EPA emphasized cleanups of Superfund sites and shifted away from climate change.

“It doesn’t mean anything improper’s been done,” said Bakst. “There’s going to be ideological people within the federal government civil service, and some didn’t want to work in the Trump administration.”

But those who experienced cuts under Trump say his administration brought something new: intense political pressure on agencies in the way of its pro-industry agenda and willingness to thwart legitimate science.

A 2018 Office of Inspector General investigation at the Department of Interior, which oversees USGS, found that 16 employees assigned new duties under Trump viewed their moves as retribution for climate change, energy, and conservation. And the administration removed or blocked some knowledgeable scientists from boards that advise the EPA about everything from air pollution to toxic chemicals in favor of industry insiders, said Christopher Zarba, former director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board.

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