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EPA plan to reorganize environmental science center raises questions

Originally published by E&E News.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is planning to shut down a grant-making center that supports leading-edge research on human exposure to pollution and its effects.

Under the proposed consolidation, the grants, contracts and administrative functions of the National Center for Environmental Research (NCER) — a component of EPA's Office of Research and Development (ORD) — would be combined with two other offices focused on administering grants.

A new Office of Resource Management would then be responsible for some NCER functions, as well as the work of the offices of Administration and Research Support and of Program Accountability and Resource Management. Freedom of Information Act requests, records management and budget formulation functions from other organizations would also be moved into the planned resource management shop.

Liz Bowman, EPA's associate administrator for public affairs, described the prospective shake-up as an efficiency move.

The change would shift "staff to the labs and offices where their expertise is most effective," she said in a statement. "This potential reorganization would not affect anyone's employment or status, and the management of research grants will continue."

Contrary to an initial report in The Hill that described the consolidation as a done deal, Bowman said the plan is still in its preliminary phase.

"ORD leadership is currently holding listening sessions with staff across the country to discuss this proposal, so everyone can work together to develop the best organization possible," she said.

The consolidation under consideration has been in the works for many months, according to Robert Kavlock, the former acting head of ORD who retired last November after 40 years at EPA.

"Its functions would still be in the organization but redeployed to make it more efficient, given the resource constraints and the hiring freeze," Kavlock told E&E News.

The organization is less relevant than making sure that really important function of support for science continues.

Thomas Burke, former head of the Office of Research and Development

After years of falling support for NCER science grants such as the Science to Achieve Results, or STAR, program, the question became whether the agency needed a separate center to administer the grants, or whether it should just shift that support function back into other parts of ORD, Kavlock said.

"This is not a [Scott] Pruitt doing," he said, referring to the EPA administrator. "There has been a continual loss of funding for the STAR grants program."

Funding for the STAR program peaked in 2002 at around $138 million, when controlled for inflation, a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine review found last year. In 2016, the funding for the program had fallen to $36 million.

The National Academies recommended "that EPA continue to use STAR to respond to the nation's emerging environmental challenges," but the Trump administration's budget requests have twice called for its elimination.

Chris Zarba, a former acting head of NCER who left the center in 2012, also wasn't taken aback by the news that Pruitt is now looking to fold the program into another office.

"This is not a surprise," he said in an email. Zarba, who recently retired from the director role at EPA's Science Advisory Board Staff Office, noted funding for the STAR program had been dwindling "for quite some time," mainly because it was the easiest way to cut ORD's budget.

"Rent, salaries are fixed cost so when reductions came in recent years there was [nowhere] else to go for the money," he wrote.

Other former EPA leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach to the proposed consolidation.

"The organization is less relevant than making sure that really important function of support for science continues," Thomas Burke, the Obama-era head of ORD, told E&E News.

But Burke, who now teaches at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, remains concerned about the move, in light of previous actions by Pruitt that he thinks have weakened EPA's Scientific Advisory Board and put the independence of the agency's chemical assessment program at risk.

"Is this another assault on the scientific capacity of the nation to address emerging environmental problems, or is this truly a step forward in organization and accountability and independence of science?" Burke asked. "That's the important question, and that I don't know."

Reporters Kevin Bogardus and Sean Reilly contributed.

Reprinted from Greenwire with permission from E&E News. Copyright 2018. E&E provides essential news for energy and environment professionals at