Political Appointees Interfered in Competitive Grant Review Process

Published Oct 13, 2022

What Happened: According to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), officials under the Trump administration impeded the approval and funding of scientific grants, especially for research on climate change and endangered species.

Why It Matters: Politicization of the grant award process violates the DOI’s merit review policy, placing political concerns ahead of scientific research that informs policy decisions and protects the health of our environment and the public. Senior officials should follow funding recommendations made by experts and not withhold critical funding for political reasons.

A report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed Trump officials interfered with the review process of grant proposals at the Department of Interior (DOI). The report found that senior officials of the Trump administration impeded grant decisions across several agencies at DOI by denying funding without documenting rationale of the decision, and failing to make decisions on competitive grants without any notice to those federal agencies who submitted the applications, including 13 grant applications from the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). Political interests guided grant application screening processes as reviewers were instructed to have approved grants comply with DOI Secretary Ryan Zinke’s 10 priorities for grant proposals. DOI’s competitive grant award process should be guided by federal grant regulations and the agency’s merit review process. This rigorous process is intended to ensure that applications are reviewed in a comprehensive, impartial, and objective manner.

When reviewing the Interior’s competitive grant award process, GAO auditors found that political officials targeted and halted research proposals that primarily focused on endangered species and the impacts of climate change. GAO’s review found that 15 grant programs across three agencies lacked documentation to support their award decisions. Grant funding programs within the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), US Geological Survey (USGS), and National Park Service (NPS) seemed to specifically be targeted.

For example, GAO discovered that in 2018 senior advisors under Trump failed to make an award decision for a USGS grant application that focused on climate change impact research. USGS experts tried to get in contact with a senior advisor at DOI to get information on their grant application status, but USGS received no response. FWS grant staff were also ignored when they attempted to get in contact with Interior officials for months to gain approval for grant applications. GAO auditors also found that an application from a religious, civil rights organization to conduct historic preservation activities was also denied despite recommendation for funding from the Interior’s grant review panel.

In 2017, a similar incident of interference from the Trump administration during the grant review process was also seen at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when it became a requirement for a political official to sign off on each grant before it could be awarded. That same year, DOI initiated new grant screening procedures with a memo authored by Scott Cameron, principal deputy assistant Interior secretary for policy, management, and budget to require political officials’ approval. This change made it so that a senior political advisor would be primarily responsible for reviewing grants, including those above $50,000 for universities.

Science-based agencies like DOI produce valuable scientific research and data that us used by scientists, decision-makers, and the national public. By politicizing the competitive grant review process, officials prevented agency experts from approving important scientific studies and undermined agency credibility. Federal agencies, like FWS, USGS, and NPS, communicate robust scientific information that is used to guide environmental and public health rulemakings, and a public good was likely lost by politicizing grant funding.