Bernhard Staehli

US Agencies Chip Away at Science and Climate Change Spending

A progressive group analyzes Trump team efforts to downplay data and research.

Despite Congress’s rejection of many of their proposed budget cuts, political appointees at agencies have made significant headway reining in scientific pursuits in the area of climate change, according to a compendium released on Wednesday.

The liberal-leaning Center for American Progress compared the Trump budget submissions with final appropriations while assembling a round-up of administrative actions to recast science activities at the Environmental Protection Agency and the departments of Commerce, Interior, Energy and Defense.

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“Important climate and energy research agencies” such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey “saw overall increases above the previous fiscal year’s levels, while even the politically embattled EPA, which the Trump administration had sought to cut by nearly one third, saw its previous budget levels maintained,” the report said.

The analysis was based on Government Accountability Office numbers showing $13.2 billion spent on climate change by 19 agencies in fiscal 2017. If Trump had had his way, the CAP report said, budget requests would have yielded a $2.4 billion, or 16.8 percent, cut between fiscal 2017 and 2018, and a $1.9 billion, or 13.2 percent, cut between fiscal 2017 and 2019.

“Below the top lines, some key climate data and science initiatives will still suffer,” the report added.

At NASA, for example, the agency received $20.7 billion overall that included $6 billion for science within which appropriators earmarked funds for Earth Science, planetary science and several specific research projects such as telescopes.

“But ‘NASA – Science – Earth Science’ is a $1.9 billion bucket encompassing some 120 operational missions and projects, studying everything from clouds to the water cycle to global climate change,” wrote analysts Luke Bassett, Kristina Costa and Lia Cattaneo. And congressional committee reports include “more granular” guidance on priorities.

Lawmakers “failed to reference the Carbon Monitoring System,” the analysts noted, and “because Congress was silent on that $10 million project, the Trump administration was free to—and did—cancel it.”

Much of the CAP report reiterated previous press reports about tactics used by Trump appointees dealing with climate change: transferring Senior Executive Service specialists to unrelated jobs, screening grants for possible political taint, removing scientific data and explanatory text from websites, dismissing experts from advisory panels and restricting agency scientists from attending academic conferences.

Such moves—even if Congress rejects the proposed budget cuts—can do long-term damage, the authors said. The Trump administration has taken aim at grants and at “funding for graduate students broadly, proposing, for example, to reduce the number of NSF Graduate Research Fellowships—the oldest and most prestigious graduate fellowship of its kind—by 1,000 fellows in fiscal 2018 and 500 in fiscal 2019.  In the short term, opportunities for faculty and students may be significantly curtailed, and in the long term, political meddling could dangerously threaten the viability of climate science as a career path.”

The State Department, in another example, killed direct contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the World Meteorological Organization’s Global Climate Observation System.

At Commerce, in August 2017, the 15-member Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment was disbanded, the report said, after a political appointee at NOAA in an email said that “it only has one member from industry, and the process to gain more balance would take a couple of years to accomplish.”

Also in August 2017, the Interior Department decided not to renew the charter for the 25-member Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science, having previously canceled an April meeting of the committee, the report said.

At Energy, Secretary Rick Perry “has frequently championed the ‘crown jewels’ of the National Laboratories and their computational abilities, but his rhetoric elides budget cuts large and small,” the report said. In fiscal 2018, his budget justification “proposed eliminating the relatively small (approximately $24 million) Joint Center for Energy Storage Research, which performs basic research on atomic-level battery chemistry. The same proposal included a 70 percent cut to all Earth and Environmental Systems Modeling, and the FY 2019 proposal still included a 63 percent cut from 2017 levels.”

In the long haul, the authors warned, "data may be lost, scientists may lose their funding or jobs, and the quiet destruction of the federal climate and energy data and research endeavor may go by without notice. The survival of climate and energy data and research should not—and cannot—depend on President Trump’s or his allies’ discretion.”