One year ago, environmental engineer Chris Frey was an outcast and a rebel at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), issuing scathing critiques of its treatment of science under former President Donald Trump. Now, the former North Carolina State University scientist has been named to head the agency’s research branch.
President Joe Biden’s nomination of Frey to run the Office of Research and Development (ORD), announced on 22 September, signals a marked shift toward environmental science at a time when the agency is tackling a host of policies and regulatory decisions that lean heavily on research.
“There’s no shortage of challenges, that’s for sure,” says Andrew Rosenberg, director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Under the Trump administration, ORD—which oversees everything from hands-on research to compiling tomes summarizing science about regulated pollutants—was overseen in part by appointees with backgrounds focused more on policy than environmental science. Richard Yamada, who led ORD from 2017 to 2018, previously worked on the House of Representatives science committee under former Representative Lamar Smith, a conservative Republican from Texas. David Dunlap, who succeeded Yamada, had headed policy and regulatory affairs for Koch Industries, a major manufacturing and chemical company.
Frey, by contrast, studies human exposure to air pollution and was a longtime member of EPA advisory committees that vetted the science behind regulatory proposals. In 2018, he was part of an agency panel examining particulate matter pollution when it was abruptly dissolved by then-EPA acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Frey did not go quietly.
Under Trump “a multi-pronged attack on science at EPA is threatening air quality standards that by law are required to protect public health,” Frey warned in The Conversation.
He and the other members of the defunct panel created an independent group to continue the panel’s work, in coordination with UCS. In August 2020, the group published a letter in The New England Journal of Medicine challenging an EPA staff recommendation to retain, not lower, pollution limits for small particulate matter such as soot, and criticizing agency actions that it said “undermine the quality, credibility, and integrity of the review process and its outcome.”
In February, the Biden administration named Frey deputy assistant administrator for science policy at ORD, a position that doesn’t require Senate confirmation. Following last week’s announcement of his new nomination, Frey wrote on Twitter that he was “proud of the great staff in ORD and the fantastic work we are doing to protect human health and the environment.” He declined an interview request until after his confirmation hearing.
If Frey is confirmed by the Senate, it would be a welcome end to a long string of acting ORD leaders, says John Vandenberg, who retired this year as head of the division within EPA’s science office that looks at the health effects of regulated pollutants. The last ORD head confirmed by the Senate, Paul Anastas, left the agency in 2012. The lack of confirmation can influence a leader’s clout in an agency, Vandenberg says. “That has been a real difficulty, because a person who’s not a ‘political’ [appointee] may not be invited to all the critical meetings with the [EPA] administrator.”
Vandenberg praised Frey as a talented scientist with a strong grasp of policy. “He has a breadth of expertise that is unusual for many academic people,” he says.
Since 2012, the roles overseeing ORD have been split between a career EPA official running much of the day-to-day operations, and a political appointee who didn’t require Senate confirmation and wasinvolved in more political meetings with the EPA administrator, says Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, a longtime EPA scientist who retired in July after 4 years as the acting career head of ORD. If Frey is nominated, much of the work in those two roles would likely be merged.
One key role for a new ORD leader will be to strengthen policies shielding agency scientists from political interference, Orme-Zavaleta says. She pointed to risk assessments—in which agency scientists evaluate pollutants such as formaldehyde for their potential threats—as an area where science ran into political problems during the Trump administration. In recent months, when her time at EPA overlapped with Frey’s arrival, she saw encouraging signs.
“He is well aware of that,” she says of scientific integrity concerns. “That’s something that he’s been focusing on since he came in.”
Frey’s leadership at ORD would be an appreciated change in an organization that saw an exodus of veteran researchers and a dearth of young recruits during the Trump years, says Daniel Costa, who retired from EPA in 2018 after heading the agency’s Air, Climate, and Energy Research Program, which is part of ORD. “Chris, he wants to get stuff done,” Costa says. “He wants to get the ship up and going. He knows what needs to be done in terms of the overall big mission questions.”
EPA lost 672 scientists between 2016 and 2020, a decline of nearly 6%. That number of people lost was more than six other science-focused federal agencies combined, according to a UCS report.