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Deborah Swackhamer testifies last month before the House of Representatives science committee.

House Science Committee Democrats

Scientist tells her story in latest partisan battle on House science panel

Deborah Swackhamer made sure to follow the rules before giving testimony last month to Congress on the role of science in setting policy at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But her caution didn’t prevent her from being caught in the crossfire of another partisan clash between Republicans and Democrats on the science committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.

A professor emerita at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, Swackhamer is chair of EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors (BOSC), an external panel that advises the agency’s science office. But when the science committee’s Democrats invited her to a 23 May hearing on state involvement in EPA regulation setting, she told them she would appear only as a private citizen and would focus on how science helps the agency do its job.

Swackhamer ran that plan by senior officials in EPA’s science office, and they seemed to be fine with that distinction, spelling out some ground rules for her to follow. She agreed, then accepted the committee’s invitation and submitted her testimony. But on 22 May, one day before the hearing, Ryan Jackson, chief of staff to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, emailed her to suggest changes to that testimony. Jackson also said that her statement needed to be vetted by the agency’s congressional affairs office.

Swackhamer declined to alter her remarks, saying the request infringed on her ability to present her views to Congress. “I thought my comments were factual, so I did not use his talking points,” she tells ScienceInsider. She was shocked that Jackson had even seen the testimony, because committee staff had assured her that it was embargoed until the hearing. (It is not typical practice for congressional committees to share with federal agencies the testimony of witnesses prior to a hearing.)

The next day, none of the lawmakers attending the hearing asked her about the exchanges between her and Jackson. Swackhamer said her piece about the importance of science in helping EPA make decisions and thought that was the end of that.

Partisan name-calling

Not a chance. This past Monday, more than a month after the uneventful hearing, committee Democrats announced they had asked the agency’s inspector general, an in-house watchdog, “to investigate potentially illegal attempts by senior EPA officials, particularly Ryan T. Jackson, the EPA’s Chief of Staff, to interfere with Democratic witness, Dr. Deborah Swackhamer’s, testimony to the Science Committee last month.”

In their letter to Arthur Elkins, panel Democrats asserted that “the ability of both federal officials and private citizens to freely communicate with Congress without fear of intimidation, interference, or reprisal is a bipartisan issue that is critical to ensuring good governance and uncovering issues of potential waste, fraud, abuse, or mismanagement.” The Democrats also wrote to Pruitt, telling him of their concerns.

The New York Times and other media reported the news, citing relevant emails that Swackhamer had shared with the Democrats. The stories also contained a statement from the chairman of the science committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), upbraiding Democrats for “politicizing what seems to be nothing more than a federal agency making sure that information provided to Congress is accurate.”

Within hours, Smith had upped the political ante by putting out his own press release. His account of the incident included what he says is the “full email exchange between Jackson and Schwackhamer [sic].” Oddly, those emails seem to confirm what Swackhamer says she was told by EPA officials, and raise questions about Jackson’s actions.

“Deb Swackhamer did reach out to us on 15 May,” Robert Kavlock, acting head of the science office, wrote in a 22 May email to Jackson. Kavlock then summarized the advice she was given. “Since you would be speaking in your personal capacity, you cannot speak on behalf of EPA nor can you share any nonpublic information. Additionally, if you mention your role on the BOSC you should also include other relevant details from your resume that highlight your achievements as a scientist.”

Smith’s press release essentially accuses the Democrats and Swackhamer of colluding against him. “The Minority and Swackhamer contend that the testimony she provided to the Committee was done so solely in her personal capacity and not as the Chair of the BOSC. [But] the true intent of this testimony was to criticize Administrator Pruitt’s evaluation of the BOSC rather than discuss state involvement of EPA rulemaking.”

The “evaluation” that Smith cites is a reference to Pruitt’s decision in late April to break with precedent and not reappoint nine of the 18 members of BOSC whose 3-year terms had expired. Pruitt said the agency wanted to cast a broad net before choosing its next set of advisers. The scientists being cut loose were free to reapply, he added.

Swackhamer was quick to criticize Pruitt’s decision once the news got out. She told reporters it was part of a larger effort to “promote deregulation” at EPA by muting the impact of scientists on its regulatory decisions. Since then, Pruitt has decided to part ways with an additional 38 people who serve on five subcommittees that report to BOSC. By Swackhamer’s tally, EPA’s roster of 68 experts will dwindle to 11 by 1 September, at which point the BOSC itself will have only three members.

That drastic reduction in capacity is her real concern. “I’m sorry that it’s gotten so political,” says Swackhamer, whose 3-year term runs until next spring, at which point she hopes to be reappointed to a second term. “My main message is that EPA can’t meet its mission without robust science. And that requires both doing good science and making use of expert external review, which is what BOSC provides.”