The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This EPA research program just got a rave scientific review. Trump wants to eliminate it.

The headquarters of the Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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As Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt defended massive proposed budget cuts to a House subcommittee Thursday, experts from the nation’s top science organization voiced their support for one of the programs slated for elimination.

A report released Thursday by the National Academy of Sciences — and prepared at the request of the EPA — argues that the agency’s Science to Achieve Results, or STAR, program, which provides millions of dollars in funding for scientific research each year, has contributed to important benefits for the environment and the public health. And it recommends that the agency continue to use it.

“This report shows that through STAR, EPA has created a vehicle that fosters collaboration and knowledge-sharing, which have produced research that has supported interventions that may reduce the cost of regulations, protect public health, and save lives,” the document states.

STAR is just one of dozens of EPA programs that would be defunded under the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget, which has sparked outrage among scientists and environmentalists alike. Total cuts would amount to about $2.4 billion annually, or nearly a third of the agency’s budget. On Thursday, testifying before a House appropriations subcommittee, Pruitt spoke in favor of the proposed cuts, highlighting his support for the elimination of “redundancies and inefficiencies.”

EPA head defends White House’s plan for massive cuts to his agency

In justifying the proposed STAR program cut, the EPA’s proposed 2018 budget document explains that the program “funds research grants and graduate fellowships in environmental science and engineering disciplines through a competitive solicitation process and independent peer review. EPA will prioritize activities that support decision-making related to core environmental statutory requirements, as opposed to extramural activities.”

But according to the National Academy of Sciences review, the STAR program is no redundancy. Defunding it could harm the future of environmental and health-related research in the United States, said Harold Mooney, an environmental biologist at Stanford University and one of the National Academy of Sciences committee members who helped prepare the report. The program fills “a very important niche, and that is doing solution-based research in environmental biology and public health,” he told The Washington Post.

The STAR program was first established in 1995, and has since been serving as the EPA’s “primary competitive extramural grants program,” according to the new report. Each year, it issues requests for applications and selectively funds independent research projects proposed either by individual investigators or groups of institutions. It also funded projects proposed by graduate students until 2016, when that leg of the program was discontinued.

The program’s budget allocation has varied substantially over the years, peaking at around $138 million in 2001 and 2002 and reaching its lowest point in 2016 at about $39 million. It has been prolific in that time. Between 2001 and 2015, the report notes, it awarded nearly 1,500 grants and fellowships in total.

And according to the review, its benefits speak for themselves. STAR funding has supported several major initiatives addressing the health effects of air pollution, helps fund critical research on child health and development and has contributed to multiple projects involving environmental management, such as research on incentives to reduce pollutants.

One of the program’s major successes was its implementation of several large pollution-focused initiatives, including the Particulate Matter Centers, Clean Air Research Centers and Air, Climate and Energy Centers, a series of focused research centers housed at institutions around the country. Research produced by these centers demonstrated that air pollution can decrease human life expectancy — and these findings helped support the establishment of more stringent nationwide air quality standards, which the report notes “may have saved lives and reduced healthcare costs nationwide.”

“Understanding of health effects as a consequence of exposure to particulate matter is very different today than it was in 1990, and much of that has been the result of the STAR program,” said Mark Utell, a physician and professor at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and chair of the committee that conducted the review.

In fact, according to Mooney, the STAR program’s major value is that it supports applied projects — research that aims to solve real-life, practical problems.

“There are other foundations which support more generic work,” he said. The National Science Foundation, for instance, provides funding for all kinds of research endeavors. But the STAR program “was really targeted at building the capacity of our nation to address environmental problems,” Mooney said.

That’s not to say it couldn’t be improved. The review suggests that the STAR program’s major shortcoming is its difficulty in tracking the benefits of the research it supports. This is not necessarily an issue limited to STAR — as the report notes, “all research programs struggle with tracking public benefits and attributing them to single research projects.” Even so, the review suggests that the EPA could invest in better-maintained databases of the projects it supports and the final reports that they produce. And it also recommends improving efforts to publicly communicate these research results.

Overall, though, the review finds that the program works — it supports important research and it produces tangible and even lifesaving benefits. The review includes no suggestion that there’s any reason for the program to be eliminated.

The review is the second National Academy of Sciences report released this week alone that offers support for an EPA program slated for the chopping block. Another congressionally mandated report, released Tuesday, found that the Energy Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy — or ARPA-E — program also works and is “not in need of reform.” ARPA-E, which funds energy research and innovation, would be eliminated under the Trump administration’s 2018 budget proposal.

Despite Pruitt’s support for the cuts, however, it appears increasingly likely that the budget will fail to make it through Congress in its current form. The EPA cuts, in particular, have met with resistance on both sides of the political aisle, with Democrats and Republicans alike arguing in support of the agency’s work.

This means that the STAR program, and others like it, may still have a shot at making it to 2018 alive. And that would be for the best, according to the National Academy of Sciences committee.

“It has a different focus than virtually any other program,” Utell said. “The idea of not having or eliminating the EPA’s extramural program — it would be unfortunate, the committee would think.”