MSU professor loses post, fears ‘weakening’ role of science

Scientists love an unanswered question, but one mystery has a lot of them on edge these days: Will the Trump administration listen to them?

Robert Richardson studies the interplay of the economy and environment at MSU. He’s a quiet, in-the-trenches researcher and a national park fanatic. (He’s been to almost all of them.) He isn’t thrilled about stepping into the media spotlight, but he has a unique window into the uncertainty rippling through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

For the last three years, Richardson, 49, served with a select group of scientists, the Board of Scientific Counselors, that advises the EPA on how to do research. He loved the job.

“It has been the most intellectually stimulating activity I’ve been involved in in recent years,” he said.

In May, he got an “unexpected” email saying he would not be reappointed. He was one of five members of the board whose appointments weren’t renewed, even though they were eligible for another three-year term.

Richardson isn’t saying he was fired, let alone wrongfully, but he said it’s “a break from common practice” not to reappoint board members for a second three-year term.

“People on the board serve across administrations,” he said. “It’s not a political appointment. It has no policy role.”

Tuesday, the board’s members got another email from the EPA, saying that all of the subcommittee meetings for summer and fall were canceled.

Richardson said the email is “consistent with previous actions to wipe the slate clean and begin anew.”

“I expect that this is also a way of weakening the role of advisory boards by effectively disbanding them,” he said.

The advisory board’s subcommittees were not exactly counting the angels on the head of a pin. They are packed with specialists of all stripes, from engineers to chemists to private sector experts.

One item taken up by Richardson’s subcommittee in its October review of EPA projects was the effectiveness of various ways to disperse oil spills.

“I think we’d all argue that that’s important work,” Richardson said. “If there are going to be oil spills — and there are oil spills every year, many of which don’t get reported at all —what is the most effective way of cleaning them up? I don’t think that’s politically charged research. It’s just about how to clean up a mess in the best way.”

One of the spills discussed in the October review was the July 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill, in which a heavy grade of oil sank to the bottom of the river instead of floating on the surface. Richardson said research on dispersants was “relatively underdeveloped” at the time, making cleanup more challenging.

“That kind of research is important, so that when you have fresh water oil spills, with tar sands oils, you know how to clean it up,” he said.

The October policy review also included research related to containing and cleaning up superfund sites in Michigan.

“That’s important work that affects the cities of Detroit and St. Louis and other Michigan cities,” he said.

Richardson was especially pleased to be appointed to the EPA advisory board because it meant his own field was getting high-level recognition.

Richardson chaired the committee that advises the EPA on maintaining sustainable and healthy communities.

It’s the only EPA research program that includes social science.

“It studies human beings — impacts of changes in the environment on human health, which is an important part of the agency’s mission,” Richardson said.

As an environmental economist, Richardson studies the economic and social impacts of changes in the environment.

Growing up, he was fascinated with the idea of visiting every national park.

He studied economics and busi- ness as an undergraduate and saw environmental economics as a way to combine his passions.

His wrote his doctoral thesis on the economic impacts of national parks — how, on one hand, parks pull land out of development, but on the other, create opportunities for tourism, gateway towns and growth in nearby areas.

Since then, he’s been involved in a wide range of projects. He is now studying the potential of energy transition to transform sub-Saharan Africa, where reliance on charcoal and wood for fuel is wrecking people’s health, polluting the air and contributing to climate change.

One of the smaller projects he’s worked on is helping the EPA label energy-saving light bulbs so people will buy and use them.

He found that the bulbs sold faster among people who self-identified as “politically conservative” if the word “environment” did not appear on the label.

(I suggested that if the EPA itself were to follow suit, it might escape President Trump’s proposed 30 percent cut to its budget. He laughed, but weakly.)

It was gratifying for Richardson to see human factors such as consumer behavior and other staples of economics and sociology get a hearing at the federal level.

“So much of our behavior is shaped by culture,” he said.

“The amount of attention social science gets in federal science overall — it’s very minute.”

While serving on the EPA advisory board, he and his subcommittee vice chairman, Utah State University sociologist Courtney Flint, led agency-wide workshops on how to integrate social sciences into environmental health sciences.

The assignment sprang from President Barack Obama’s executive order mandating all federal agencies consider the social and behavioral sciences in its research and policy making.

Advising the EPA was an eye-opener for Richardson. He found a deeply grounded respect for science embedded in the culture.

“I’m not sure what I expected,” he said. “They took our advice so seriously.”

He was impressed to learn that an auditor general kept careful track of how closely EPA staff responded to the scientists’ recommendations.

He relished learning from colleagues in his committee with specialties other than his.

“Interacting with sociologists, pediatricians, political scientists and understanding how their work relates to these issues was a tremendous learning experience and one I’ll miss a great deal,” he said.

Now he’s watching the EPA reshuffling from the sidelines. Besides wondering what will become of the Board of Scientific Counselors, he’s concerned about the fate of the agency’s research and development arm.

“I got to know those managers and researchers very well when I served on the BOSC,” he said. “I’ve come to appreciate the value of their programs, and I hope they can continue doing their good work.”

Does Richardson have any good news?

On the day Donald Trump was elected last fall, he got in front of his MSU students in environmental studies and sustainability and told them there is “great reason to feel optimistic.”

“To be fair, we’ve never really had a federal climate policy from Congress,” he said. “All of the action in terms of climate policy, in meaningful reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, is happening in cities and in corporations and it’s largely been market driven. This train has left the station and it’s not coming back.”

Richardson works frequently with colleagues overseas. He says many of them are “baffled” by recent events in the U.S., especially the pullout from the Paris accords and the denial of climate science.

“These debates do not happen elsewhere,” he said.

But if Richardson the environmentalist is disappointed in the new administration, Richardson the economist is still optimistic. Even without federal action, he said, natural gas is out-competing coal, renewable energy sources are getting close to being competitive and battery technology is developing fast.

“It’s happening here in our state,” he said. “Michigan will be an exciting place to be as this transition unfolds.”