In the early 1960s, F. Herbert “Herb” Bormann, then-professor of ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), and ecologist Gene Likens used a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to establish the Hubbard Brook Ecosystem Study, a Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in central New Hampshire.
Bormann’s research, funded by multiple 5-year NSF grants, led to the discovery of acid rain in the U.S. in 1971, and helped spur critical amendments to the Clean Air Act.
“This is a classic case of science moving into the public policy arena,” said Gordon Geballe, F&ES Associate Dean for Alumni and External Affairs. “This [research] led to a cleaning up of point source pollution and putting scrubbers on smokestacks.”
Federal funding has long played a key role in supporting scientific research to improve human health and the environment. But in the first months of the Trump administration, conflicting reports have emerged about the status of U.S. Environmental Protection Agency research grants, generating confusion and concern at universities nationwide. At F&ES, scientists whose research depends in part on federal funding are waiting to see what happens next.
Within hours of the inauguration, the administration instructed officials at EPA to freeze all research grants and contracts. Days later, scattered reports suggested the freeze only applied to pending proposals. But gag orders at federal agencies and the deletion of any mention of climate change from several government websites have put scientists on edge.
“The underlying issue is the uncertainty,” said Gai Doran, director of research at F&ES. “We just don’t know what might happen, whether [the administration] will look at the strategic plan of the funding agencies and throw it all out or whether business will be as usual.”
The Trump administration, which has openly aligned itself with the fossil fuel industry, appears intent on rolling back environmental regulations and has proposed cutting the EPA budget by 31 percent. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, who sued the agency more than a dozen times as Oklahoma’s attorney general, has strongly advocated for individual states to set their own environmental standards. Even the role of science in developing environmental policy seems in question.
“When you hear virtually every previous administrator of the EPA talk about the absolute crucial and essential nature of science informing decisions; when you hear a questioning of the value of science, that is of concern, that is new,” said Paul Anastas, the Teresa and H. John Heinz III Professor of Chemistry for the Environment and former director of the Office of Research and Development (ORD) at the EPA.
Anastas admits he’s concerned ORD could be eliminated by the new administration.
“That would be an understanding that science is at the foundation of everything that EPA does, and if you eliminate the science, you eliminate the effectiveness of the agency,” he said.
Already President Trump, along with Congress, has reversed several Obama-era environmental policies, such as regulations to protect streams from coal ash pollution and new source performance standards for oil and gas leasing on BLM lands. And in March, the administration directed the EPA to begin dismantling the Clean Power Plan, which would have limited electrical production by coal-fired power plants. But the EPA has a statutory obligation to make decisions, so the government can’t eliminate the EPA without figuring out a way to enforce statutes such as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.
“That’s different than the grants, though,” said Kenneth Gillingham, an assistant professor of economics who served as Senior Economist for Energy and the Environment at the White House Council of Economic Advisors under the Obama administration. “Grants fund research to further improve our knowledge base. They exist in order to help make better policy in the future.”
Gillingham worries that existing grants will be cut if the agency’s budget is dramatically reduced.
“What I see as very likely is that new grants are going to be ended,” he said. “Most cuts will likely come hardest in areas with projects that are the most policy relevant.”
Anastas says researchers should pay close attention to what’s coming out of the House Science Committee. Those discussions, he said, will indicate likely investments or divestments by federal agencies. “It’s not a good assumption that what they considered worthwhile funding in the past will be worth funding in the future,” he said.
Federal research grants have long played a key role in helping to support scientific research at F&ES. Nearly 50 current faculty, staff, and students have received federal funding in the last five years. And federal awards are up 13 percent in the past three years, the vast majority coming from the NSF, EPA, NASA, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and U.S. Department of Energy. F&ES scholars use the funds, along with grants from philanthropic foundations and private dollars, to conduct scientific research in a variety of fields, from designing molecules that are safe for the environment, to using remote sensing to track global carbon dioxide emissions.
“There might be some ability to tap other sources, but frankly there’s just a limited pool of money that goes to research,” Gillingham said. “Without federal dollars, it’s very unlikely that some of the key scientific findings over the past decade would have come about.”
In addition to funding new scientific research, federal grants have supported retrospective evaluations of former regulations. These projects help policymakers understand what’s worked and what hasn’t, and develop more effective regulations in the future.
Research funding has gotten more competitive since the economic recession, Doran says. The federal funding rate at F&ES is about 24 percent, which she says is really good, but that still means three out of every four proposals don’t get funded. Awardees don’t get the funds up front; they essentially receive a promise to pay, which is contingent upon the granting agency being funded by Congress. And throughout the grant, awardees must consistently demonstrate progress or risk losing their funding.
Conservatives have long argued against federal environmental regulations in favor of states’ rights. Republicans have framed Trump’s recent executive order to rollback of the Waters of the United States rule, for example, as a case of correcting federal overreach. But Anastas says there are important regulatory roles for both states and the federal government. “To say that one or the other could or should do it without both being present probably doesn’t bear the light of scrutiny. It doesn’t make sense,” he said.
Moreover, he says, putting environmental regulation solely in the hands of states could be bad for business.
“When you have national standards, you have a clear roadmap, a predictability that large companies can deal with. When you have only state sovereignty around environmental issues, you have the possibility of having 50 different regulatory frameworks, and the only way to abide by all of these is to adopt the regulations of the strictest state,” he said. “So rather than decreasing regulatory burden, it could actually increase the regulatory burden. It’s a very flawed strategy. We see this with California’s fuel economy standards potentially differing from the federal standards if the federal standards are rolled-back.”
Gillingham, who worked on the Clean Power Plan while at the White House, says government officials strive to find ways to protect human health and reduce the risk of climate change in the least costly ways possible under the law.
“We left, in some sense, no stone unturned in looking for these low-cost possibilities. It will be stopped and some of it rolled back; that’s disheartening,” he said. “I have to admit I’m sad to see this because I truly believe we were doing the right thing and taking industry concerns seriously.”
But while some like Gillingham see regulations as helping to address environmental problems, others see them as infringements on personal freedoms and private property rights.
“There’s a court system, and if they want to sue, they can sue and the courts will decide,” Anastas said. “But clearly they’ve decided that’s not good enough. So instead of using the court system to decide what legal authority they have, they just want to dismantle the agency from the inside.”
At the heart of these debates over federally funded research and environmental regulation is the role of science in promoting sound environmental policy.
“It’s critically important that scientists don’t have an agenda beyond the scientific method, and it’s critically important that agendas aren’t imposed on scientists while they pursue the scientific method,” said Anastas, who developed a scientific integrity policy at the EPA. “In other words, you can’t try to fit the science for a particular political agenda, whether you’re the funder or the scientist. Integrity means integrity.”
Despite the challenges ahead, Gillingham says he’s still optimistic.
“I do take the long view. I try to see the silver lining. I recognize how much was accomplished in the last eight years, particularly the last four years, and recognize that when the science is becoming more and more clear, when Americans are understanding the science better and better, we’re on a direction towards addressing these issues. It will just take longer than it should.”