EPA-Funded Scientists Share Their Concerns About the Trump Era

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Four researchers on how their work will be affected.

By Eric Holthaus

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Donald Trump, who has called himself an environmentalist, surveys the landscape at the Trump Turnberry Resort on June 24th, 2016, in Turnberry, Scotland. (Photo: David Cannon/Getty Images)

Update—January 28, 2017: Several news agencies, including Reuters, are reporting that the EPA lifted its freeze on grants and contracts on Friday. At least one of the scientists below, Tamma Carleton, reports that she has already received her normal stipend check. This doesn’t necessarily mean that EPA-funded scientists are in the clear, however. The Associated Press, also on Friday, reported that Myron Ebell, the former transition head of the EPA, expects the Trump administration to call for “significant budget and staff cuts” on the order of half of the agency’s 15,000 staff, and about 12.5 percent of its $8 billion budget.

During his campaign for president, Donald Trump made no attempts to hide his disdain for federal environmental oversight. At one point, Trump pledged to eliminate the “Department of Environmental” [sic], and he routinely framed environmental protection as a hindrance to the economy. Though Trump later softened his rhetoric slightly — he continues to call himself an environmentalist — his nomination of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the Environmental Protection Agency did not instill any confidence among actual environmentalists.

There are clear signs that Trump intends to follow through on a rollback of regulations that could pave the way for an expansion of fossil-fuel production.

On Monday, multiple news agencies reported a freeze on EPA grants and contracts, which has had the effect not only of halting day-to-day work within the EPA itself, but also risks jeopardizing ongoing EPA-funded research across the country. On Tuesday, in a meeting with business leaders from the automotive sector, Trump said that environmental regulations are “out of control.” On Wednesday, after public outcry, EPA officials apparently walked back a plan to scrub climate information from the agency website — though word of a new plan surfaced that would require political appointees to review all EPA studies and data prior to release.

So it’s no surprise that, when it comes to the ongoing work conducted by EPA staff and hundreds of grantees across the country, the key word right now is uncertainty.

Creating Effective Environmental Policy

Daniel Rothenberg is a post-doctoral researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Global Change Science. His work there focuses on the intersection of climate, air quality, and policy, attempting to answer questions like: “As the climate warms, how effective will these same emissions policies be? Will we need to aim higher with stricter emissions regulations to achieve the same air quality benefits?”

Previous work by his research group has shown that improved public health resulting from ozone and particulate emissions reductions ends up invigorating the economy in such a way that the emissions policy “pays for itself.”

His work is part of a five-year project funded by the EPA, so any reduction in funding “will inevitably impact us in one way or another.” At the moment, Rothenberg says, “We are carrying on full steam ahead to tackle these critical science issues.”

Dust in the Southwest

Ploy Achakulwisut, a Ph.D. candidate in the Atmospheric Chemistry Modeling Group at Harvard University, has a three-year EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant focused on quantifying the possible effects of an often-overlooked public-health consequence of increasing drought frequency in the Southwest: airborne dust.

The Southwest has been experiencing some of the fastest population growth in the country over the past decade, and the total Southwest population is projected to reach 75 million by 2030. “To our knowledge, our study will be the first to quantify the effects of 21st-century climate change on dust levels in the Southwest U.S.,” Achakulwisut said in an interview. Since poor air quality is one of the world’s leading causes of death, the EPA agreed to partially fund her work. “It’s something the public should care about, it’s going to directly impact them,” she says.

This week, Achakulwisut’s advisor received a template email from their contact at the EPA simply saying that they’re in the process of “reviewing all grants and contracts” and that they’d receive more information by the close of business on Friday. Achakulwisut and her colleagues have already received the first year’s disbursement of their EPA grant. “We’re not yet sure if our funding for years two and three will be affected.”

Achakulwisut says she’s “not too worried” about her personal research situation because she’s hoping to graduate by the end of this year, but as far as the state of science in general, she says she’s “very worried.”

Environmental Justice in North Carolina

Danielle Purifoy, a Ph.D. candidate in environmental politics and African-American studies at Duke University, also has an EPA STAR grant. Her research works to tease out differences at the local and county level in North Carolina in how race plays a factor in predicting environmental quality in everything from grocery stores to polluting chemical industries.

“We already know that race is a major factor in predicting environmental quality,” Purifoy says, but understanding the detailed interactions between race and the environment “ultimately matters for the kinds of policies we pursue, such as reforms in county government to require more stringent land use planning and/or eliminating local government policies that create racial barriers to environmental justice.”

On Wednesday, Purifoy received an email from her grants administrator at Duke saying her fellowship was frozen, but not for how long. A few hours later, she received an email from her EPA program manager saying it was still unclear whether the STAR program is covered under the freeze. She’ll find out soon either way, she says, because her grant disbursements are made at the end of the month.

The Global Economic Impact of Climate Change

Tamma Carleton, a Ph.D. candidate in agricultural and resource economics at the University of California–Berkeley, has an ambitious research program — attempting to estimate the overall impact of climate change on the global economy, from the bottom up, in something called the social cost of carbon.

“The big project that was funded — is currently funded — by the EPA looks at how labor productivity in six different countries around the world is affected by changes in the climate,” Carleton says. Her work also considers changes in health outcomes, like mortality rates — particularly suicide rates among farmers in India.

As far as the continuation of this research under Trump, Carleton is, like the others, uncertain. “I can read the news just like everybody else and try to decipher what it means,” she said. “The only notification I’ve had from the EPA was one very kind email saying, basically, ‘we don’t really know, you guys have probably read the news, we’ll be in touch.’”

Carleton is trying to be optimistic. “It’s potentially true that this is all routine and we’ve gotten ourselves especially nervous with things like, people want to know if they should be storing their data somewhere [safe],” Carleton says. “But potentially I’m wrong.”

Carleton also has advice for others facing EPA funding uncertainty, who may have become complacent during the Obama years, when work like hers was officially encouraged: “It’s important for us to realize that when there are government forces that are not pushing this work forward that it’s really up to us.… Our role now becomes even more important.”

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