Researchers from the Environemental Protection Agency's Gulf Breeze laboratory in Florida could be among those affected by deep proposed cuts to the agency's science programs.

USEPA/Eric Vance

Trump plan for 40% cut could cause EPA science office ‘to implode,’ official warns

In 2015, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington, D.C., unveiled a controversial regulation aimed at improving protection for wetlands and small streams, officials pointed to a 400-page technical tome assembled by agency researchers as the rule’s scientific foundation and justification.

But that document carried little sway this week as President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed at gutting the rule.

Now, the White House wants to dramatically slash the budget of the EPA science office that produced that report, employs some 1700 researchers and others, and runs essentially all of the agency’s other major scientific activities.

The Trump administration wants to cut spending by EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) by more than 40% from roughly $510 million to $290 million, according to sources that have seen preliminary directives from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The cuts target scientific work in fields including climate change, air and water quality, and chemical safety. EPA’s $50 million external grant program for environmental scientists at universities would disappear altogether. Such erasures represent just part of a larger plan to shrink EPA’s budget by 25% to $6.1 billion, and cut its workforce by 20% to 12,400 employees, in the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October.

The cuts are needed, the OMB guidance suggests, to help reduce the burden that EPA regulations place on industry and state and local governments. But environmental scientists, regulators, and current and former EPA officials warn the reductions would devastate the agency’s efforts to carry out its mission of protecting human health and the environment. 

The proposed cuts could cause EPA’s research office “to implode,” warns a senior EPA official. “This is serious stuff. We’re all concerned about what might happen, not just to our livelihoods, but to our ability to support the agency’s mission,” says the official, who does not have authorization to speak to reporters and so requested anonymity. “This is a premier research organization, and it doesn’t take much for the best and the brightest to start looking for other places for work. Even the uncertainty can cause a place to implode, almost, and you don’t build that back quickly if it happens.”

You will totally undermine the ability of EPA and its research arm to set standards at a level that science can rightfully be confident is protective of public health.

William Becker, National Association of Clean Air Agencies

The Trump administration is “not just going after the climate science in the agency, but going after the scientists … that do fundamental air and water and land work,” says Gina McCarthy, the last EPA administrator under former President Barack Obama.

It is not yet clear whether the Trump administration will keep the steep EPA cuts in its final 2018 budget request to Congress, scheduled to be released on 16 March—or whether Congress will go along. Many federal lawmakers, as well as state and local officials, have already expressed strong opposition to some of the cuts, and even new EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, long an EPA foe, has suggested that he will push back against parts of the preliminary White House plan.

But such talk is doing little to reduce the alarm among those who rely on EPA’s scientific expertise to help set pollution standards and understand environmental change. If the cuts are realized, “you will totally undermine the ability of EPA and its research arm to set standards at a level that science can rightfully be confident is protective of public health,” predicts William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, a Washington, D.C., organization representing state and local air pollution agencies around the country.

Longstanding attacks

EPA’s scientific work has long been in the hot seat. Congressional Republicans in recent years have targeted the agency’s funding for climate science and criticized its handling of research into the herbicide glyphosate, among other things. Industries have chafed against tightened restrictions on chemicals such as pesticides, disputing the validity of the science behind the regulations. Congress has already trimmed ORD’s budget to $512 million in 2016, down 21% from a high of $647 million in 2004.

Although that number makes ORD a relatively small research office by federal standards (other agencies spend far more on basic and applied studies), it plays a critical role in underpinning EPA’s regulatory tasks. Often, the law requires EPA to use “the best available science” in designing regulations, and ORD scientists and outside researchers that the office recruits for review panels are tasked with deciding which studies meet that standard. ORD’s work also involves developing new approaches to environmental problems, such as ways to quickly screen thousands of potentially dangerous chemicals, new methods to assess contamination from a release of anthrax, and ways to use satellites to detect toxic algae blooms. The research is done at 14 EPA laboratories in 12 states, and through external grants to universities and contracts with private firms.

We were assured that [the money] would be there, but we'll see.

Shane Hutson, Vanderbilt University

The OMB memo calls for a major shake-up of that system. “EPA is to reconfigure and restructure its activities to support the administration’s priority of reducing burdens related to certain regulations as it relates to scientific research and development,” the document states, according to a copy read to ScienceInsider.

Cuts spelled out in the new budget memo include:

  • Climate, air, and energy research would fall from $91.7 million to $45.7 million.
  • Research in chemical safety and sustainability would go from $89.2 million to $61.8 million.
  • Water-related science falls from $107.2 million to $70.1 million.
  • A category labeled “sustainable healthy communities” plunges from $139.7 million to $75.8 million.

Although the OMB memo doesn’t always state exactly which research programs would be axed, it does offer some specifics. EPA would no longer contribute to the U.S. Global Change Research Program, a multiagency task force that coordinates federal research on global change. Research on chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine system would be scaled back. And one of the few sources of federal grants for academic researchers who study environmental science—EPA’s Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program—would dry up.

Although STAR’s $50 million budget isn’t big by federal standards, “it’s big enough that [eliminating] it would have an impact in the subset of [environmental] science research,” says Shane Hutson, a biological physicist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Hutson is in the second year of a 4-year, $6 million EPA grant aimed at devising a faster way to test thousands of chemicals for whether they might harm fetuses. That could be vital as the agency searches for ways to satisfy 2016 changes to the federal Toxic Substances Control Act aimed at improving chemical screening.

Since hearing news of potential cuts, Hutson has been on the phone with EPA, trying to learn whether his funding—which has already been awarded—is in peril. “We were assured that [the money] would be there,” Hutson says, “but we'll see.”

The chemical industry, meanwhile, is also waiting to see budget details, says Kathryn St. John, a spokesperson for the American Chemistry Council, a Washington, D.C.–based industry group. But St. John noted the group supports funding to ensure EPA can carry out the new toxic chemical law.

Pushback

Already, there are signs of pushback against at least some of the proposed cuts. At a Thursday meeting with the U.S. Conference of Mayors in Washington, D.C., new EPA chief Pruitt told mayors he was delivering a message to the White House and Congress that agency programs aimed at cleaning up superfund sites, rehabilitating former industrial land, and improving water infrastructure “are essential to protect.”

More broadly, even some senior Republicans in Congress have expressed doubts about the larger Trump administration budget plan that is driving the EPA cuts. It calls for boosting discretionary defense spending in 2018 by $54 billion, and paying for that increase by cutting discretionary spending at civilian agencies such as EPA. The shift would likely require Congress to change a 2011 law, called the Budget Control Act, that imposes caps on domestic spending—but Democrats in the Senate have already said they would block any change unless it also includes spending increases for civilian programs.

Such dynamics mean the battle over any proposed EPA cuts will be fierce and long. And even before the White House delivered its demand for 2018 cuts, EPA officials appear to have been tweaking their approach to describing ORD’s activities to the new Trump administration. Under Obama, reports issued by ORD trumpeted its climate change–related research. But in a presentation to transition officials last month, ORD officials stressed the legal mandates that require EPA to conduct much of its scientific work, quoting paragraphs from the Clean Air Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Toxic Substances Control Act. Climate change got a single, brief mention on the 13th slide of the PowerPoint.