“This came as a surprise,” said Courtney Flint, a sociologist at Utah State University who served on the board, in an email. “I was told that the agency plans to carry out a competitive nomination process to solicit new members. No other reason was given.”
“It’s clear from the reports in the media that the current administration has said that they want to replace board positions held by academic scientists with members from industry, so I do not think I am speculating when I say that this is a political move,” she said.
But even if that is the goal, some of the laid-off board members appear to have no equivalent expert from private industry.
Paula Olsiewski, for instance, is a central figure in the field of biosecurity. For more than a decade, she ran the Sloan Foundation’s $44-million funding program in biosecurity, coordinating research across the country.
As part of her role on the Board of Scientific Counselors, she chaired the EPA’s homeland-security research subcommittee. She and Taylor also had to carry top-secret clearances so they could advise the agency’s research.
On Monday, she gave me an example of the kind of work she did for the EPA. “When bird flu hit various poultry farmers, and you’re the farmer, where do you go for advice? All these chickens and turkeys have to go somewhere after you euthanize a flock. What do you do with that waste so it doesn’t contaminate other flocks?” she said. “The EPA’s homeland-security research team figured out what to do. This is not sexy research.”
“We’re scientists reading nerdy reports, meeting with other brilliant scientists, talking about particle size or spore size,” she told me. “‘The work [we were] doing is very, very technical. This isn’t light reading. But this is very important research. What do you do with dead birds? What do you do with Ebola waste?”
Other biosecurity experts confirmed that Olsiewski has played a pivotal role in developing the field of biosecurity and that she has helped other people develop careers in the field.
“Dr. Paula Olsiewski has a unique and deep level of expertise in biosecurity,” said Megan Palmer, a senior research scholar in international security at Stanford University, in an email. “She provided support and leadership, through her programs at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, for activities that have formed a basis for current approaches to biosecurity.”
She added that it was hard to find someone in the field who wasn’t helped or supported by Olsiewski’s programs in some way, including herself.
When I asked Olsiewski how many people had comparable experience in biosecurity, she demurred. “I would say… the country needs more people who have that experience,” she told me. “There aren’t many people who study how to manage waste after a biological incident.”
She also praised her fellow member of the board, Tammy Taylor, a longtime biosecurity researcher who could not speak to the press on account of working for the Department of Energy. Taylor was vice-chair of the agency’s homeland security committee. She was also dismissed from the board last week.