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The Consequences of Freezing Federal Science Grants

Lisa HaywardJan 27, 2017

Click to Enlarge ImageSometimes, no matter how hard or long or carefully you’ve worked, you can have the rug pulled out from under you. It happened to me when I was a postdoc in the early spring of 2007.

Back then my desk was a black resin bench in my advisor’s lab, where I faced two nonfunctioning gas valves. I was sitting there working at my laptop one day in March when I got an unexpected email informing me of a sudden freeze on my funding, effective immediately. I rushed to my advisor’s office where he had just read the same email and was turning toward the door with a stunned expression. “We’ll sort this out,” he assured me. A few hours and several calls later all he could say to me was “Lisa, I am so, so sorry.” The federal agency that administered our grant had asked us to stay silent about the freeze. There was nothing for us to do.

I was in the third year of my postdoc, two weeks away from the start of my final field season. For months I’d been recruiting, interviewing, hiring, and preparing my team of 18 interns and four crew leaders. I’d spent hours negotiating housing and rental vehicles and ordering and organizing field equipment. I’d lined up people to stay in my house for the five months I’d be away. I’d planned orientation and training exercises with agency staff. I’d opened a separate bank account to manage my field advance.

Suddenly, I had nothing. I was unemployed and uninsured, and I had to call my field crew to tell them that they were unemployed as well. There was no clear way for me to continue collecting the data that I needed to wrap up my three-year project, never mind to analyze or publish it. Without a salary I would have to find other work, and there was no one else who could finish my project, meaning that the more than $600,000 and thousands of volunteer hours already invested were wasted. I would re-enter the job market with nothing to show for the three years since I finished my PhD. Worse, many others involved in billions of dollars worth of projects across the state were also in the same boat.

I had to relive that nauseated unmooring again earlier this week when I learned about President Trump’s freeze on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s funding for science. In the words of an anonymous scientist on Facebook “The EPA was just directed to freeze all grants. This means that grad students and researchers funded on EPA funds are now without funds. All ongoing studies are stopped.” ProPublica makes a similar statement about the situation in their recent article about the freeze. I’ve heard from colleagues that their EPA grants have been frozen. My calls to EPA headquarters have not been returned. EPA’s press contact for my region told me that he would forward my inquiry to his superiors, but that’s all that he could say.

This freeze may sound harmless, or even admirably cautious, depending on your perspective, but make no mistake that its potential destructiveness is dizzying. This one executive snag has the power to unravel so many past investments, erasing much of the value they could provide to us, the taxpayers that funded them. At the same time it has the power to unravel our future capacity, eliminating from the workforce many people we paid to train, who could have provided decades of service to society through their science. Many of those who lost their funding this week may be forced out of science permanently.

This loss should matter to us because environmental health is human health. Humans are to our biosphere like mitochondria to their cell—separate and genetically distinct, but incapable of independent existence. When environmental scientists report that our biosphere is threatened, it’s like our doctor telling us that we are sick. It signals that we need expert help on how to heal.

Right now scientists are warning us that our biosphere is dangerously threatened by climate change because we are releasing too much carbon into the atmosphere, and they’re also telling us about countless ways for us to make things better. Everyday they’re making progress on ways to cut emissions, to build ecosystem resilience, to suck carbon from the atmosphere. One of my favorite examples is burning agricultural waste in alow oxygen environment to make a material called biochar that can increase crop yields under drier conditions while locking carbon into the soil. Another is cultivating fast-growing aquatic ferns called azolla that suck up carbon while purifying water and providing nutrient-dense vegetation that can be used as a fertilizer or food. We can use carbon to make rock, asphalt, building material, and fuel. I could write all night every night for a week about all the scientific developments that can help protect the health of our environment. After a week I’d have to stop for sleep, not because there’s an end to the material.

Now is not the time to silence science. This ailing biosphere is an extension of us and everyone we’ll ever know. We can’t afford to send our doctors out of the room. Parents who do that for their sick children are convicted as criminals.

I was likely luckier when I lost my funding than many in that position are today. I had relative privilege, a lack of dependents, and the emotional support of a husband, three parents, and a circle of smart confidantes while I considered my instructions to stay silent. I spent two days outside in my yard, digging weeds out of a cold garden while I pondered. There were the 16-hour days that my volunteer interns had worked over multiple seasons, our binders full of field data, the thousands of test tubes we’d numbered, the gallons of gas we’d burned, the declining population of wildlife that we were studying.

Eventually, I felt an obligation to speak. I picked up the phone and started calling—first collaborators, then lawyers, then elected officials and reporters—anyone I could think of who might be able to help. It was no easy feat for an introvert with an instinct to follow the rules.

Meanwhile, I paid the bills by taking a science-writing contract and raising emergency funds from a few small nonprofits to limp along with research until I could help convince a judge to lift the stay on funding, not just for our project, but for all affected projects across the state of California. A few months later my supervisor and I celebrated our first big grant from the National Science Foundation.

Ultimately, we prevailed, but the freeze had taken its toll. I lost more than half my crew, including a talented crew leader who had been with me from the beginning. I had to start my field season late and, as a result, missed a critical early breeding period for the year, which meant we couldn't gather that data until the subsequent year. My postdoc had to be extended for a fourth year so I could make up the data collection. Eventually I published our results and took a job outside of research. Unfortunately, not everyone affected by the new freeze on EPA funding will have as many options as I did. For them the consequences of this executive action could be much more dire.

So what can we do to advance environmental science in the face of administrative obstruction? I’d love suggestions, but I’ll also recommend these actions.

  1. Donate to groups like the Climate Action Network, Citizens’ Climate Lobby, or the Union of Concerned Scientists
  2. Talk to your representatives .
  3. Run for office.
  4. Participate in the upcoming March for Science.
  5. Keep an eye out for opportunities to crowd-fund carefully vetted science. I undertook some crude crowd-sourcing in 2007 (sending out emergency emails to potential small-scale funders), but I’ve since been able to help fund the research of colleagues using sites such as Experiment. My only caveat is that the federal grant review process is intense and helps ensure that only well-planned and worthwhile projects get funding. On a site like Experiment I’m not sure what the process is for peer-review. In the past I’ve only used it to fund projects with which I am personally familiar.

The views and opinions expressed in this post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of American Scientist or its publisher, Sigma Xi.

This post is published in Macroscope

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