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Uh oh. Studies find little U.S. money to study ecological impacts of chemicals

U.S. government funding for studies of how synthetic chemicals affect the environment isn’t keeping pace with the rapidly expanding use of these substances, which include pharmaceuticals, pesticides, and industrial agents, two recent analyses conclude.

There has been a precipitous decline since the 1980s in the amount of money available for external research grants at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is primarily responsible for regulating chemical use, four researchers noted last month in an opinion piece published in Environmental Science & Technology (ES&T). And relatively few journal papers or grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology (DEB)—the nation’s major funder of ecological research by academics—focus on the issue, finds a study published this week in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (FREE).

One result: “[C]hemicals continue to be approved for commercial use, although their environmental impacts are unknown,” writes G. Allen Burton of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and colleagues in ES&T.

The production of synthetic chemicals has increased dramatically since the 1970s, with millions of new substances created every year. And the accelerating pace of commercial chemical introductions now “exceeds that of most previously recognized agents of global change,” such as nutrient pollution and habitat destruction, note the authors of FREE study, led by Emily Bernhardt of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

But the ecological impacts of chemical introductions are getting relatively little attention from academic scientists, Bernhardt and her co-authors discovered after reviewing funding and publishing trends, and presentations at a major scientific meeting. Less than 1% of papers published in the most highly cited ecological journals over the past 25 years dealt with synthetic chemicals. At the largest-ever international conference of ecologists in 2015, just 1.3% of research presentations mentioned contaminants. And when they examined funding trends at NSF’s DEB, a major source of grants for ecological science at universities, they found that less than 3% of current grants (those active as of 1 January 2016) focused on the topic.

NSF divisions other than DEB have funded studies of contaminants from time to time, notes Alan Tessier, DEB’s deputy director in Arlington, Virginia. But, in general, NSF and its peer-review panels that grade proposals have traditionally left more applied research on chemical impacts to other federal agencies, including EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, say those familiar with the issue.

EPA has struggled with flat or declining budgets over the past few decades, note Burton and his co-authors, and funding devoted to its primary external granting program—called Science To Achieve Results—has dropped from about 1% of the agency’s budget at its peak in 2001 to about 0.5% now. As a result, “virtually no extramural research funding at the EPA exists for the ecological impacts of chemicals; rather, most funds are directed toward human health and, more recently, climate change,” they write.

“It’s mind-boggling to think we can study the environment and ecosystems in the absence of chemicals,” Burton says, “because they are everywhere now.”

One solution, Burton suggests, is for U.S. scientists to try to copy relatively successful efforts in Australia to create cooperative grant programs between industry, academia, and government.