Trump's Freeze On EPA Grants Leaves Scientists Wondering What It Means

Residents of Flint, Michigan, are still dependent on bottled water because of their lead crisis, yet the agency responsible for prevention and clean-up has been thrown into chaos. Linda Parton/Shutterstock

The new Trump administration has ordered a “freeze” on Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grants and contracts. Scientists have been left struggling to work out what it means, and to explain to the public just how devastating this decision could be.

The period between last year's election and the inauguration provided plenty of indications that Trump planned to escalate his party's war on science. The appointment of Oklahoma attorney general Scott Pruit, who has sued the EPA, disputing its right to regulate mercury and other toxins, was a clear sign that much of the agency's work would be nobbled. A leaked copy of alleged plans for the agency didn't help. The document proposes that the EPA should cease funding scientific research entirely.

Nevertheless, much of what the EPA does has not been all that controversial, at least until now, and some grant recipients might have expected they wouldn't be in the firing line. It now appears likely that this is not the case.

On Tuesday, as one of his first acts after taking office, Trump sent a letter to the EPA's administration office ordering a freeze, but managers within the program don't yet know what this means. It's not uncommon for government agencies to engage in hiring freezes, with no new employment occurring until the thaw. However, staff at the agency are reportedly unclear on whether a grants and contracts freeze means that no new grants can be made, or whether payments are to cease on existing grants.

The fact that EPA employees, along with those at the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior have been gagged from talking to the media has not helped. The EPA website does not appear to have been updated since last Wednesday, and the Twitter account has fallen silent since Friday.

A freeze on new grants lasting for weeks or months would be damaging, but if current contracts are included, the effects will be catastrophic. Most of the EPA's work is outsourced, rather than done in-house. The agency has an estimated $6.4 billion worth of contracts with businesses, universities, and research institutions for projects such as testing water quality and cleaning up polluted sites. Coming so soon after the crisis of lead in the Flint water supply gained national attention, the firms conducting this work probably didn't think anyone would stop paying them to keep working, but now they can't be so sure.

Similarly, many graduate students and researchers are trying to find out if their payments, which include health insurance, have been cut off. Attempts to call the White House for clarification have been unsuccessful. This isn't surprising. Hundreds of administration staff need to be replaced at every presidential changeover, and more than 90 percent are currently unfilled, with Trump yet to send nominees' names to the Senate for confirmation.

Contrary to reports that the White House switchboard has shut down, it appears to still be operating, but the volume of calls has been so great, most are not getting through. For those that do, there may be no one working in the White House who can answer their questions.

The confusion is not restricted to scientists. State governments depend on the work of the EPA, and some have been trying to find out what it means for them, so far without success. 

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This post from Jacquelyn Gill has been shared more than 4,000 times as scientists seek information about what is happening to their grants.

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