Pres. Donald Trump’s administration could be willfully blinding itself—and the nation—when it comes to the environment, according to many science policy experts startled by its new proposed budget for 2018. Released last week, the initial budget outline envisions dramatic cuts in funds for monitoring air and water quality, climate change and more.
“It would cut off our eyes, ears and nose, with respect to what is going on in our surroundings,” says John Holdren, who served as former Pres. Barack Obama’s science adviser and is now a professor of environmental science and policy at Harvard University.
Such a move is perhaps unsurprising for an administration known for its thorny relationship with scientific facts. But the consequences of weakening U.S. environmental monitoring abilities would be serious for everyone, says Brenda Ekwurzel, director of climate science for the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate and Energy Program, echoing other policy experts. “So many people need our environmental intelligence," she says. “It’s saving lives, saving businesses money and reducing harm.”
The cuts would strike hard at the core of the nation’s primary institutional guardian of the environment, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They would slash the agency’s budget by 31 percent, eliminate 3,200 EPA positions out of about 15,000 and reduce its Office of Research and Development budget by almost half. “It means a lot of the research done by EPA scientists won’t be there,” says Kei Koizumi, visiting scholar at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), who handled budgetary and policy issues in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy under Obama. “Even if the agency is able to get data about the environment, it wouldn’t have the scientists and research conditions to make sense of it.” Even EPA staff who are not directly involved in monitoring help run grant programs for outside groups that track the environment, and they review those groups’ monitoring data—and a number of those positions could get cut as well. “It’s very draconian in the EPA’s case,” says Barry Rabe, professor of environmental policy at the University of Michigan. “It really doesn’t spare anything—almost every area is targeted.”
In addition to the general cuts, the Trump administration’s proposal hits specific EPA programs that conduct environmental monitoring. It reduces the Superfund budget—a program for cleaning up some of the nation’s most polluted sites and which includes monitoring efforts—by $330 million, dropping it by almost a third from the previous year. It also completely removes funds for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a program devoted to cleaning toxic contamination as well as other problems including invasive species and harmful algal blooms in the Great Lakes. Ending the program would stop its monitoring efforts in all these areas, including water quality, Rabe says. “There’s a lot of human health concerns here,” he adds. “Monitoring is a basic measure we use to see if progress is being made.”
The proposed budget would also get rid of the Chesapeake Bay Program—a regional partnership pollution cleanup effort that mainly targets fertilizer and other chemical runoff that enters the bay. “At its core, the program monitors water quality in the watershed and the bay and also does environment modeling that’s required to track progress,” says Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. “All of that would be eliminated.”
Other agencies that keep an eye on the environment such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are taking hits under the budget as well. The administration’s proposal ditches $250 million in NOAA programs and grants for marine and coastal research, management and other efforts. It specifically dumps funding for Sea Grant, a research program that includes support for data collection and environmental monitoring—and puts that information in the hands of people who manage coastal and marine resources, including fisheries managers. “This is how we keep track of what we are doing in our oceans—overfishing, plastic trash, acidification, climate,” Holdren says.
The budget outline does keep funding for NOAA’s current generation of polar satellites, a key part of what the National Weather Service uses for weather forecasting. But it also calls for “savings” in funding for the Polar Follow-On satellite program, which would launch two satellites in the coming decade. If the budget does affect those satellites, it could degrade monitoring capabilities for events like snowstorms and hurricanes, AAAS’s Koizumi says. “You would have far less warning,” he explains. “Instead of being able to forecast seven days out, you might have to wait until two or three days before the event.” He also notes the storm tracking would have been far less reliable for an event like Superstorm Sandy without data from this kind of polar satellite.
Finally, the budget proposal axes NASA’s four Earth science missions: PACE, Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 3, CLARREO Pathfinder and DSCOVR’s Earth-viewing instruments. All of these missions provide important data for environmental tracking, particularly for climate change—a scientifically validated phenomenon that Trump and some members of his administration have previously denied. PACE, for example, would monitor Earth’s oceans and atmosphere. It would help scientists better understand clouds and carbon dioxide exchange between ocean and air, monitor air quality, improve forecasts for harmful algal blooms, and more. CLARREO gathers data on climate change and its trends and would help scientists improve their climate models. OCO 3 measures atmospheric carbon concentrations. DSCOVR would continue to monitor space weather under Trump’s budget, but Koizumi says its Earth-facing cameras would be turned off. NASA’s Acting Administrator issued a statement last week about the budget proposal, saying, “We remain committed to studying our home planet and the universe, but are reshaping our focus within the resources available to us.”
Not only does the budget target monitoring and measurements, it also reduces funding for data analysis—which many consider equally important. “They’re systemically going after analytical programs in these agencies,” Holdren says. “They’re cutting off the sources of insight, analysis and information.” The White House did not respond to requests for comment, nor did NOAA or the EPA.
The sudden reduction of information would not be just a problem for federal scientists; data from these agencies are also crucial to state and local governments, academic scientists and the public. “If we cut back on [environmental intelligence], we’re going to be feeling more in the dark,” Ekwurzel says. Congress still needs to approve the administration’s budget, and there is significant doubt that it will get through in its current form. But many in the science community see the proposal as representing Trump’s intentions for his tenure—and whether intentionally or not, it would limit access to important knowledge about the environment. “It would cut off the operations,” Holdren says, “that give the public information about what’s happening and the ability to demand policy changes.”