EPA Grants and Scientific Studies Reviewed by Political Appointees

Published Jan 23, 2017

When EPA contracts and grant awards were frozen for review by political appointees on the Trump transition team shortly after the inauguration, that review included scientific data and studies—which may have violated the agency's scientific integrity policy.

What happened: EPA contracts and grant awards were frozen for review by political appointees on the Trump transition team shortly after the inauguration—and a transition team spokesperson indicated that this review included scientific data and studies.

Why it matters: Subjecting scientific studies to political appointee review may have violated the EPA's scientific integrity policy.

Hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as President of the United States on January 20, an email from the administration was sent to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) instructing employees to temporarily suspend all contracts and grant awards. On January 25, Doug Eriksen, the Trump transition’s team communication lead at the EPA, said that the roughly $4 billion grant program, scientific data and studies were being reviewed by agency staffers and Trump’s transition team. “We're taking a look at everything on a case-by-case basis, including the web page and whether climate stuff will be taken down. Obviously with a new administration coming in, the transition time, we'll be taking a look at the web pages and the Facebook pages and everything else involved here at EPA,” Eriksen said.

When asked whether scientific data and studies would be included in the review, Eriksen responded, “Everything is subject to review.” An internal EPA email read, “EPA staff have been reviewing grants and contracts information with the incoming transition team. Pursuant to that review, the Agency is continuing to award the environmental program grants and state revolving loan fund grants to the states and tribes; and we are working to quickly address issues related to other categories of grants. The goal is to complete the grants and contracts review by the close of business on Friday.” The review of grants was said to have been done so that the Trump administration could evaluate the money flowing out of the agency. “We want to make sure that grants reflect the new administration and that money is not being wasted,” Eriksen said.

Viewpoints differed on whether or not the pause to review EPA grants was unprecedented during a transition of presidencies. Karl Brooks, former lead of EPA’s Office of Administration and Resources Management under President Obama, said that it’s not unusual “to put in place a brief pause to survey the landscape.” Others, such as Scott Fulton, EPA general counsel under President Obama, did think the review was unusual. “There was no such freeze [on grants] when the Obama administration came into office. The assessment was done before the inauguration as opposed to after,” Fulton said.

There was also concern that the review of grants, scientific data and studies by political appointees to Trump’s transition team violated EPA’s scientific integrity policy. The policy “prohibits managers and other Agency leadership from intimidating or coercing scientists to alter scientific data, findings or professional opinions or inappropriately influencing scientific advisory boards.” George Gray, assistant administrator of EPA’s Office of Research and Development under President George W. Bush, said that science was generally not reviewed by senior level officials. “Scientific studies would be reviewed at the level of a branch or a division or a laboratory. Occasionally things that were known to be controversial would come to me as assistant administrator and I was a political appointee. Nothing in my experience would go further than that.”

On January 26, Eriksen announced that the grant review was completed. “We finished our review process. As of now, nothing has been delayed. Nothing has been cut. There was simply a pause and everything is up and running,” Eriksen said. President Trump’s proposed budget would cut EPA’s budget by 31%.