Liberal Column

Frozen EPA grants left SUNY-ESF researchers on thin ice, but there’s hope for the future of environmental research

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President Donald Trump has unleashed his signature on executive orders and other agency directives at a blistering pace since his inauguration, taking full advantage of his newfound executive power and testing his constitutionally endowed limits.

One area in Trump’s sights that may have the largest direct impact on many members of the SUNY-ESF community was the freezing of all hires, grants and contracts at the Environmental Protection Agency, but thankfully, the school may not have to feel the effects of those frozen grants, since the Trump administration recently lifted the temporary freeze.

Since the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry is so entwined with the workings of the EPA, it’s understandable that researchers and students at the school were so worried about the freeze of hires, grants and contracts. The Trump administration lifted the freeze in late January, and the EPA’s acting administrator described the temporary freeze in an email to agency staffers as “standard practice for a transition,” according to The Washington Post.

As a public, environmentally-focused school, SUNY-ESF currently receives about $1 million of its research funding from the EPA, and more than $1 million in funding is pending, said Christopher Nomura, vice president for research and professor of biochemistry at SUNY-ESF.

Although research funding from the EPA may no longer be a concern, the SUNY-ESF community faces uncertainty regarding the EPA executive order in other aspects. After graduation, many SUNY-ESF students look to the EPA for jobs or research funding. The absurdity of the freeze begs the question of the EPA’s future under an administration that doesn’t seem to care about the work it does. When even the mere existence of the agency is in doubt, it’s difficult to plan your way through college toward a future career path.

The Trump administration’s apathy toward the environment and its decidedly anti-environmental rhetoric is reflected in the Republican-dominated Congress as well. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) recently withdrew a bill that would sell 3.3 million acres of federal land after he received backlash from conservation and sportsmen’s groups, according to The Hill. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has drafted a bill that would, according to The Huffington Post, completely abolish the EPA.

With the current level of environmental ineptitude in the federal government, we are now forced to rely on the benevolence of the Bill Gateses and Warren Buffetts of the country to keep the hypotheses tested and the journal articles flowing. This philanthropy is reminiscent of the arts patronage of the Italian Renaissance, when the rich and powerful would financially support artists in exchange for their artwork or music, except nowadays the nation’s billionaires are dishing out dollars for scientific research instead of paintings.

But don’t think the scientists at SUNY-ESF or elsewhere will simply take this lying down.

“The data generated by scientific studies is crucial to advance knowledge in general and it allows us to make informed decisions,” said Nomura, the vice president for research at SUNY-ESF. “It should be emphasized that science, regardless of sponsor, is not a political endeavor but required to generate this new knowledge.”

If the rogue Twitter accounts of environmental and scientific groups are any indication, federal researchers won’t let their important work be swept under the rug. That resilience combined with the upcoming March for Science on Earth Day and the People’s Climate Movement just one week later should provide everyone who cares about the environment with an abiding faith in the scientists and researchers who protect our air and water, who have saved millions of lives and who continue to seek answers to the great questions of humankind.

Cole Jermyn is a junior environmental resource engineering major at SUNY-ESF. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at cdjermyn@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @Cjermyn8.

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