Like many of his colleagues at the Environmental Protection Agency, Justin Chen says he wanted “a job with a purpose.” So in 2015, Chen left his post as an environmental engineer for a consulting firm to take on a similar role at the EPA. “I always wanted to see what it was like to be on the regulatory side, as opposed to working on behalf of the people that were regulated,” Chen says.
He also looked forward to what he thought would be a stable, unionized job. But Donald Trump’s administration was about to upend things at the EPA, making vulnerabilities that the agency was already facing even worse. Trump’s election a little over a year after Chen started at the EPA ushered in a period of dramatic environmental rollbacks and an exodus of scientists from the agency.
Even though Trump’s term is over, the “brain drain” that the EPA has suffered for years could still pose real harm to the environment and people the agency is tasked with protecting. And after years of tumult at the agency, potential recruits might not see the well-oiled government machine Chen expected to join.
But under new leadership, the agency is attempting to rebrand and rebuild. It’s selling itself as a workplace with a revitalized mission. It’s tackling perhaps the most existential environmental threat the agency has ever faced: climate change. The agency’s leadership has also homed in on environmental justice as a new focus for the agency, a quest to end the unequal burden of pollution on marginalized communities.
“You’re going to hit the ground running in this startup, EPA,” says Betsy Southerland, former director of science and technology at the EPA Office of Water. “And you’re either going to be assigned to do damage repair, from all the damage the Trump administration did, or you’re going to be assigned brand-new initiatives on climate change and environmental justice. Now how exciting is that?”
Southerland and other experts talked about what it might take to “rebrand” federal science agencies during a recent House Subcommittee on Investigations and Oversight hearing in March on the “brain drain” across the entire federal scientific workforce.
“Recruiting and hiring top tier STEM talent begins with the fact that the federal brand itself has been damaged,” Max Stier, president and CEO of Partnership for Public Service, said in the hearing. “Government shutdowns, hiring freezes, negative rhetoric, political interference in science have all tarnished that brand.”
Southerland resigned with a splash during the Trump administration after 30 years with the agency. She was far from alone. The EPA lost almost 750 scientists between 2016 and 2017, according to data obtained by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists through the Freedom of Information Act.
“Much of the expertise of the federal bureaucracy has fled in horror, taken early retirement, or taken other jobs. And a lot of new talent that ordinarily would have gone into federal service decided not to,” Michael Gerrard, founder and faculty director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told The Verge last year.
By 2020, the EPA’s workforce had fallen to its lowest level since 1987. But compared to the 1980s, agency staff now have more complicated regulations to enforce on more complex industries, plus a bigger population to protect, says Chen. “People are getting burned out. This is something tenuous that can’t last forever,” says Chen, who also serves as the president of the local union representing EPA workers in the south central US.
Low levels of staffing come with costs to people outside of the EPA, too, says Southerland. Environmental regulations don’t get enforced and outdated rules don’t get updated. And there aren’t enough people to conduct inspections and oversee the cleanup of the nation’s most toxic sites. “You’ve got a quality control issue and you’ve got a timeliness issue,” Southerland says. “In the meantime, the communities are sitting there living in this.”
Some communities in particular have been suffering more than others. “Communities of color, low income communities, and indigenous populations are still struggling to receive equal protections before the law,” former head of environmental justice efforts at the EPA, Mustafa Santiago Ali, wrote in his 2017 resignation letter from the agency. He wrote that people in those communities “live in areas with toxic levels of air pollution, crumbling or non-existent water and sewer infrastructure, [and] lead in their drinking water,” along with other exposures to pollutants.
While things came to a head during the Trump administration, there were nagging problems before he stepped into office. The EPA’s budget has essentially flatlined over the past decade, which has taken a toll on its workforce. The EPA offered buyouts to staff to walk away or retire early under both the Barack Obama and the Trump administrations. Budget constraints also led to more reliance on temporary, contracted workers rather than on full-time employees. “While that in some cases can be efficient and it might be short term cost effective, it actually doesn’t help build the strength of an agency to do the long term work,” Andrew Rosenberg, a director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said during the House subcommittee hearing.
Higher pay outside of federal service has also made the private sector an attractive option for scientists, panelists said during the House Subcommittee meeting. Improving federal pay was one recommendation highlighted in a report on how to strengthen the federal science workforce that was released last month by the watchdog Government Accountability Office.
Unless the agency quickly replaces talent that it’s lost, its “brain drain” could get even worse. The EPA in particular has a good chunk of older employees — some of whom have been with the agency for decades. The EPA in 2018 had a larger proportion of employees eligible to retire than any other federal agency except for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Government Executive reported. More than 20 percent of EPA employees were eligible to retire that year, a figure that’s expected to jump to more than 42 percent by 2023. As retiring scientists hang up their lab coats, the EPA will lose even more institutional knowledge.
Making over the EPA
The urgency isn’t lost on newly appointed administrator Michael Regan. “It’s our job to make sure we have a work environment that promotes science, data, integrity and transparency. We’re going to have to walk that walk — demonstrate we are a worthy place of employment. I believe lots of people are already getting that message,″ Regan told the Associated Press in a March interview.
Since last year, the EPA has developed relationships with schools, including historically Black colleges and universities, participated in career fairs, and hosted webinars “in an effort to increase awareness of the agency’s hiring efforts and to attract a diverse pool of highly qualified candidates,” a spokesperson for the EPA said in an email to The Verge.
In some cases, starting over has also meant cleaning house. Since stepping into office, President Joe Biden has called for the creation of a task force to identify attacks on scientific integrity during the Trump administration. There’s also an effort within the EPA to determine how political interests might have undermined science at the agency.
In a big shakeup last month, Regan removed 40 people who’d been appointed during the Trump administration to serve on two important scientific advisory committees. The previous administration had restricted qualified scientists from joining the committees and allowed more people from the industries the agency regulates to join. Regan called his move a “reset” that would restore “scientific integrity” at the agency in an interview with the Associated Press.
The agency looks as if it’s resetting in a lot of ways. It recently brought back the EPA webpage on climate change that had disappeared during the previous administration and recommitted itself to tackling a global crisis that Trump had called a “hoax.”
Regan also committed the EPA to tackling the ways pollution and climate change disproportionately affect communities based on race and class. “We will put environmental justice where it belongs: at the heart of our plan to tackle climate change,” Regan said in a video on the new climate webpage.
Biden also sought to increase the EPA’s budget by more than 20 percent in a proposal released last week, although Congress would ultimately decide how much money the agency is allocated. Looser purse strings could go a long way toward bringing more people on board at the agency by giving it more money to hire and offer competitive salaries.
A clean slate at the EPA could be another pull for younger hires, Southerland says. Because of the void left behind by those who’ve stepped away, there’s more room to grow and quickly step into more responsibility within the agency. “The big thing that the EPA recruitment team could use is this whole idea that, ‘If you come to us now, you’re going to be on the ground floor of building back an agency that’s really been damaged,” Southerland says. “To be on the ground floor of any new effort like that is a lot more exciting than when you’re coming into a well staffed, fully functioning bureaucracy.”
The EPA might be undergoing a makeover of sorts now that it’s under new leadership and is tackling climate change and environmental justice with more gusto. But people inside the agency say its most effective selling point is still the mission at the core of its work. “The people at EPA joined this agency for a specific reason. They believe in the mission. They believe in public service, and they want to protect public health and the environment,” Regan told the AP.
That’s clear in Chen’s decision to stay at the EPA despite its ups and downs. He works on protecting air quality, a charge he says he’s got a personal stake in because he has a brother with asthma. They grew up in Southern California, a region where the air cleaned up dramatically after the Clean Air Act was passed in 1970 — the same year the EPA was founded.
“Where else can you get your hands dirty on actually doing rule enforcement? The NGOs can only go so far with their lawsuits. Ultimately, they have to be enforced by the [EPA] itself and by the state,” Chen says. “I never really thought of leaving because quite frankly it’s like, if I can’t do this work here, no one else is going to do this work.”