Science supporters’ fears since Donald Trump was elected have been confirmed: staffers with political, rather than scientific, backgrounds are rejecting research grants at the Environment Protection Agency (EPA). Other scientific agencies may be going down the same disastrous path.
The hostility Trump expressed on the campaign trail towards rigorously supported conclusions across many fields of science produced plenty of alarm as to how science would operate if its largest worldwide funding source chose to interfere in research. Nevertheless, while it has been clear Trump officials are interfering with the way research is discussed, there has been less confirmation the science itself has been compromised.
Now, the Washington Post has reported that all grants at the EPA are to go through a political aide with no scientific background, who has canceled $2 million dollars of funding to universities and aid organizations. So far most canceled programs have been for pollution reduction, but like at the Department of Energy, research appears to be in the firing line.
The grants were previously approved by EPA staff with particular expertise in the areas being studied. John Konkus, on the other hand, was campaign chairman and office manager for Trump in Leon County, Florida, and has worked as chief of staff for Florida Governor Rick Scott, but has no science qualifications or background whatsoever. Even his political skills are open to question – Hillary Clinton won Leon County by 25 percent, even more than Obama, even while the rest of Florida became more Republican.
Career EPA employees told the Post Konkus has told grant officers to look out for “the double C-word” ie climate change, and any references to it must be removed from applications. It appears the new EPA leadership simply doesn’t want to know about the consequences of the largest environmental threat America faces.
Even more shocking, however, are reports of discrimination by region as well as by topic. Grants for work to be conducted in Alaska have allegedly been particularly heavily studied, including a two-week halt on $10 million funding to America’s largest state.
The Alaskan freeze has been denied by EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman, but is alleged to have begun on the day Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski was one of three Republican senators to join with Democrats in voting down the Republican-sponsored health care bill. At the time there were reports of threats being made that the states that elected these senators would suffer for these votes, but this is the first evidence of this occurring.
The behavior is unprecedented, at least in America. Although political appointees influence the priorities of government research agencies, presidents of both parties are not thought to have them screen individual grants, since they lack the expertise to be able to assess scientific merit.