Administration

Freeze on Federal Activities Gives Scientists a Chill

January 26, 2017

Andrew Harnik, AP Images
In the opening days of the Trump administration, reports of a clampdown on grants and communications at the EPA and other agencies alarmed researchers. Some of those orders are being walked back, but long-term questions remain. Above, environmental activists unfurled a banner from a crane at a construction site near the White House on Wednesday.
Shelly L. Miller’s next research project doesn’t seem overtly political. A professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she hopes to study ways of helping homeowners affected by mold and dampness.

But given the state of politics in Washington, Ms. Miller is hesitating on seeking a new grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to look into the matter. "Who knows," she said. "They may not want to fund that type of research any more."

It’s a concern that arose after the election of President Trump last November, and now — less than a week into the administration — is being amplified by various reports of a freeze on grants, new regulations and even public discussions by government agencies and officials.

The reported new limits on science, experts say, are of more concern than putting the brakes on some government activities soon after a presidential transition.
There’s a lot that’s unknown about the new Trump administration's policies, and some of them already appear to be shifting. Administration officials initially spoke of a freeze on research grants at several agencies, including the EPA and Department of Agriculture, along with a ban on tweets or other social-media comments by agency officials, and a halt in any regulatory changes, even those already approved.

Then, under pressure from members of Congress and an array of critics outside the government, some of those changes are reportedly getting walked back, now described as temporary, or clarified to be less sweeping than they initially appeared.

The EPA made clear that current grants would not be blocked, and that plans to delete climate-change references from the agency’s website had been reversed. The administration’s nominee for secretary of commerce, Wilbur Ross, said that scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would be allowed to publicly share peer-reviewed findings.

And some experts outside Mr. Trump’s Republican Party have acknowledged that certain types of temporary clampdowns on governmental activities are within the range of normal for the immediate aftermath of a presidential transition.

But given the long list of statements by Mr. Trump raising doubts about his acceptance of key scientific understandings, both as a candidate and since taking office last Friday, and his selection of others with similar views to staff his cabinet, the reported new limits on science are raising alarm.

Rookie Mistakes?

For now, said Rush D. Holt, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, it appears to be the case of an administration comprised of officials with little experience in government not being clear about what exactly they’re doing.

Mr. Holt, a former university scientist and former Democratic congressman from New Jersey, said the situation is reminiscent of the Trump team’s order prior to the inauguration — later rescinded after a public outcry — for the Energy Department to list the names of any staff who had been involved in climate conferences.

"I would like to believe that that was just a beginner’s mistake," he said of the Energy Department order. "And I would like to believe that this is just another beginner’s mistake," he said of the restrictions on grants and communications.

Either way, however, the scientific community should be sure to loudly protest, to ensure there’s no consideration of making such conditions permanent, Mr. Holt said.

More concerning for the longer term, he said, could be the total absence of anyone with scientific credentials or even a demonstrated appreciation of science among the list of top administration officials named so far. That could prove dangerous, Mr. Holt said, once the nation faces a real crisis — such as a major oil spill, or a serious disease outbreak — and the administration finds it has no experts to consult.

A former EPA lawyer who served at the agency during the last presidential transition, Grant MacIntyre, said the public concern now seems heightened because the ban on government communications seemed so broad.

It’s hard to make clear comparisons with the past, said Mr. MacIntyre, now a clinical assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, because social media wasn’t the same dominant presence eight years ago. But the American public has grown accustomed to agencies tweeting advice and observations, largely nonpolitical fare, and "it seems abrupt to see that end," he said.

Mr. MacIntyre, a former special assistant to the general counsel at EPA, said a presidential transition "is always a difficult time in an agency," with no set pattern. Among staffers still at the EPA, the more experienced seem to be saying, "This comes with the territory," he said. "And perhaps some of the newer employees, experiencing their first transition, could be a bit more concerned about it."

Mostly, Ms. Miller said, the EPA staff seems unsure what to say. She is nearing the end of a three-year, $1 million EPA grant to study how homes insulated to save energy affect the quality of air inside, and she visited the agency’s Washington headquarters last month with other EPA-funded scientists to present their findings.

The event went well, but even then EPA staff were tight-lipped about their future. "We were trying to get them to tell us — ‘How you doing?’, ‘What’s going on?’ — and nobody would really say anything," she said.

Ms. Miller has to decide next month whether to come back to those same EPA officials for more money to study household mold. "I’m hopeful, but I haven’t yet talked to them" about the new grant idea, she said. "I don’t know."

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.