Trump’s freeze on EPA grants leaves researchers and their students in the dark

Professors who have been given EPA grants to help fund student research are left wondering what the future holds.

CREDIT: iStock/Gromit702
CREDIT: iStock/Gromit702

When news broke Tuesday that the Trump administration had ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to freeze all grants and contracts, Kelly Cobb, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware, nervously looked for any information about how the move might impact money she’s currently using to help students fund research projects. But hours after the news had spread through various media outlets and universities, Cobb still had not heard from the EPA itself.

“We are kind of freaking out,” Cobb told ThinkProgress. “It’s so frustrating, we are dumbfounded right now.”

The EPA has been an early target of the Trump administration, and initial indicators suggest the agency will operate much differently under Trump than it has in the past, even in Republican administrations. The administration has already asked EPA employees to refrain from speaking with the press or release public-facing documents, according to leaked internal memos. The Trump administration also expressed their intent to review climate data housed on the EPA website, and there has been some concern that internal science might be required to undergo review by political appointees. And Trump’s nominee for EPA administrator, Scott Pruitt, has built a career on challenging in court the agency’s ability to regulate the environment.

EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

Taken together, the uncertainty surrounding the grant freeze, coupled with rumors about a tightening on agency science, has a lot of researchers, like Cobb, nervous for what the future holds.

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Cobb is one of dozens of professors, department heads, and researchers who has been awarded a grant known as an EPA P3 Grant — the three P’s being People, Prosperity, and the Planet — aimed at helping student researchers fund projects focused on sustainability. Each university that wins a P3 grant is awarded $15,000 for the first phase of the project, and can reapply for an additional $75,000 to further the research.

“We are dumbfounded right now.”

In 2013, the last year for which data is publicly available, the EPA awarded $9.6 billion in grants — and while a $15,000 grant for student research represents only a tiny sliver of the EPA’s total grant budget, the recipients of those grants depend on the money to fund travel expenses, or lab expenses, or generally offset the cost of undertaking research in sustainability.

“Having these grants gives students an opportunity to view the world through a different lens, and that’s what we are trying to do here,” Richard Sheardy, professor and chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at Texas Woman’s University, told ThinkProgress. “A lot of it, from our perspective, is really about social responsibility. That is one of the main things we are trying to teach our students — not just to be a good scientist, but to be a responsible citizen.”

“Having these grants gives students an opportunity to view the world through a different lens.”

Despite concerns over the politicization of science, the projects being undertaken by Sheardy and Cobb’s students are hardly inherently controversial. At Texas Woman’s University, Sheardy’s students proposed to use EPA funding to help build pollinator gardens on the university’s campus — gardens that include native flora and can be used by both scientists for research purposes and students for relaxation. And at the University of Delaware, Cobb’s students were using the EPA grant money to research ways to cut waste in the textile and fashion industry.

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“The fact that these grants have been automatically suspended really has tremendously negative impacts for our students who are in the midst of research,” Cobb said. “I don’t understand the total rationale of the freeze. I think the first few days of the presidency, Trump is making a lot of waves, but the waves he is making are impacting the work we are trying to do.”

Initial statements from the new administration suggest the grant and contract freeze won’t be as long or widespread as initially feared. Doug Ericksen, the Trump transition’s EPA communications lead, told E&E News that the freeze was likely to be lifted on Friday, and did not impact funds earmarked for state toxic cleanup efforts, revolving fund accounts to states, tribes and other entities for capital construction, or wastewater treatment.

Some researchers awarded EPA grants were less concerned that the freeze would have a long term impact, but almost all the researchers that spoke with ThinkProgress said that they were operating without any real information, as little had been provided by the EPA.

“We are operating on rumor and innuendo, so it is impossible to know what the impact might be, whether all EPA funding is frozen or only future awards,” Mike Hambourger, an assistant chemistry professor at Appalachian State University, said in an email. “Right now we have no idea what the administration’s cryptic message means. We’ll see how things develop.”

Hambourger, along with his colleague Shea Tuberty, are using the EPA’s P3 grant to fund student research looking into using light to degrade recalcitrant pollutants in wastewater. The final report of that research is due to the EPA by March, meaning that any lag in funding could significantly slow the research process.

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“Any delay in funding would substantially impact our ability to complete the outlined tasks,” Hambourger said. “A delay (or even the current hint of a delay) also hurts student moral, which really is an important outcome of this funding.”

Even if the funding ends up unscathed by the freeze, researchers like Cobb and Sheardy worry about what the new administration means for the future of scientific research.

“If you have a president who doesn’t believe in science and data, then there’s nothing tangible to hold onto.”

“Our project is small, but the message that is being sent is not a happy one,” Sheardy said. “I think there is a general anti-intellectualism in this country, but I think it just got a whole lot worse.”

Cobb was even more concerned about the Trump administration’s antagonism towards scientific fact.

“If you have a president who doesn’t believe in science and data, then there’s nothing tangible to hold onto in terms of research,” she said. “Who would ever think that this kind of research would be cut. We are living in dangerous times.”