University of Minnesota Professor Lawrence Baker axed in gutting of EPA scientists

You won't have to spend any money treating the algae in Minnesota's lakes if you fire the scientists who keep trying to test it for toxins.

You won't have to spend any money treating the algae in Minnesota's lakes if you fire the scientists who keep trying to test it for toxins. Joshua Morley

University of Minnesota researcher Lawrence Baker has been consulting with the Environmental Protections Agency for the past three years, overseeing the feds’ water research with an academic eye.

It doesn’t pay very well, and the work isn’t all that sexy. It involves such things as helping rural towns test algae pollution and setting water quality regulations. Still, Baker looked at it as a service to his country.

Last month, he received notice from the EPA that he would be fired after his current term, which ends in 2018. Along with more than 40 members of the Board of Scientific Counselors, he was offered a chance to reapply. Baker did so, curious to see whether the EPA would take him back, or hire a scientist with business ties. There were those who simply walked away, he says.

The professor doesn’t see the restructuring as a huge loss, personally. The gutted Board of Scientific Counselors won’t be making its annual meeting in August to review the EPA’s new three-year research plan, so Baker’s headed to the Boundary Waters instead.

The move was political, he believes -- an opportunity for the Trump administration to tell supporters how it’s draining government and reducing regulations. Just the latest in the EPA's new business model of killing itself.

In addition to axing pesky academics, the EPA under administrator Scott Pruitt has been making some major renovations to its climate change page, which has been scrubbed and “under construction” since April.

In May, Trump proposed slashing the EPA budget by $2.4 billion, which amounts to a 30 percent cut, 3,800 layoffs, and the lowest appropriation for state environmental agencies in 30 years. That includes a total shutdown of the 319 program, which provides Minnesota $2.5 million to repair polluted waters. This was quickly followed by the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. 

“Cutting the people in the committee, you have to ask, ‘What is the research direction going to be?’ and ‘Who are you going to pick to fill in?’” Baker says. “The worst case scenario would be they really make it dominated with industrial people, and the industrial people are either not very good scientists, or perhaps not what we would call scientists, or have a real axe to grind.”

It’s difficult to tell what the longterm effects will be, Baker says. It depends on the real motivation for targeting the Board of Scientific Counselors -- whether it’s a real effort to dismantle further regulation by directing how the EPA’s research goes in the future, or just a bit of political posturing for right-wing Trump supporters before things settle down to the way they always were.