It looks like President Trump and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator Scott Pruitt are on track to eliminate half the scientists and engineers working at EPA by 2020 - all thanks to a little thing called "workforce reshaping."
The Trump administration first revealed its ambitious plan to cut EPA staff in half by 2020 in January of last year. If Pruitt succeeds in carrying out the plan, he will have reduced EPA staff from nearly 15,000 employees to just 8,000 employees - a whopping 47 percent reduction.
With every month, the agency creeps closer and closer to its goal. As of December 2017, more than 700 scientists had left the EPA since Pruitt took over, and several hundred of those were through buyouts.
"There has been a drop of employees of 770 between April and December. While several hundred of those are buyouts, the rest of those are either people that are retiring or quitting in disgust," Kyla Bennett, director of New England Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), told ThinkProgress.
"Is that number higher than it would normally be? I think it is."
The "workforce reshaping" will likely only get worse in the years to come. Thanks to hiring freezes and federal austerity during Obama's Presidency, EPA staff has not only been kept to historic minimums, it has also been significantly aged, with 47 percent of EPA workers eligible to retire with full benefits in the next five years.
"EPA's plan is simple," wrote John O'Grady, president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), for the Hill.
"Instead of cutting staff outright, which Congress had so far resisted, and which is very expensive to implement, EPA would continue to lure eligible staff into retirement with even more bonuses than in 2017."
Even though Congress raised domestic spending this year, Pruitt is still demanding massive cuts to staff. The agency's 2018 budget has laid out $79 million in retirement incentives, which could result in over 2,000 additional retirements.
The 2019 budget also follows suit, including another $35 million in incentives, which could result in the retirement of another 1,000 employees. That's a loss of 3,000 employees in just two years.
"Every plan and budget put forth by this administration for EPA opts to cut staff, aligning with the turn to the right that big Republican donors, such as the infamous science-denying Koch Bros., have wanted," wrote O'Grady.
Yet it remains unclear how Pruitt plans on protecting the environment without adequate scientific backing. Ever since taking the reigns at the agency, Pruitt has kept in tune with the Trump administration's contempt for science and science advisors in particular.
Along with rolling back numerous environmental protections, Pruitt has enacted a new rule that bars some scientists from serving on advisory committees if they're the current recipient of an EPA grant or contract.
Because the new rule doesn't extend the same courtesy to industry experts, Pruitt has successfully skewed the makeup of his science advisory committees to favor industry interests over academia.
Even when there are science advisors to listen to, Pruitt mostly ignores them. A recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) found more than two-thirds of EPA's science advisory committees failed to meet as often as their charters directed last year.
In addition, it was found that by October of last year only 1 percent of Pruitt's meetings were with environmental groups.
"Most staffers now believe the Trump administration is purposely exhausting EPA of its best scientists and experts, dropping morale to the gutter and incentivizing employees to leave, fast," wrote O'Grady, who works with some 8,000 EPA employees.
Just this week, Pruitt announced the closure of an EPA research lab in Las Vegas, requiring the 50 employees who work there to relocate or leave the EPA altogether.
"We've spent 40 years putting together an apparatus to protect public health and the environment from a lot of different pollutants," said William Ruckleshaus, the EPA's first administrator, who led the agency under both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
"He's pulling that whole apparatus down."