Consultant with no science background reportedly on lookout for climate change.
While the EPA is often portrayed as a massive bureaucracy, about half of its budget goes directly to other organizations through grants. While many of these are focused on cleanups and reducing environmental risks, the agency also funds scientific research into various health and environmental risks. The money for these research grants has historically been allocated based on a combination of scientific merit and environmental concerns.
All that started to change in August. That’s when the EPA issued a new policy dictating that all grant programs must be run past a political appointee from the EPA’s public affairs office. Now, a new report indicates that this PR specialist is cancelling individual grants.
The appointee is named John Konkus. He occupies the position of Deputy Associate Administrator for Public Affairs, which is a public relations position. Konkus has a bachelor’s degree in government and politics, and he appears to have no scientific background—the closest is having worked for former Congressman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) back when Boehlert chaired the House Science Committee. Since then, Konkus worked for then-Lieutenant Governor Rick Scott in Florida, spent time at a political consulting firm, and then got involved with the Trump campaign.
Despite the complete lack of scientific qualifications, however, the EPA decided to put him in charge of grants. In August, E&E News obtained a policy document stating that any proposals for grant programs need to be run through the Office of Public Affairs, specifically John Konkus. No funding program is allowed to go forward if Konkus does not approve it. This can include scientific funding, as well as grants for educational or environmental programs.
Now, The Washington Post is reporting that Konkus isn’t only reviewing future grant programs; he has cancelled millions of dollars in grants that had already been through the review process and deemed worthy of funding. Some of these grants went to universities and so were likely involved in funding basic research. In addition, the report notes that the EPA briefly suspended funding for grants to Alaska at a time when the Trump administration was feuding with one of its senators.
According to the Post, “Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for ‘the double C-word’—climate change—and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations.”
It’s normal to have funding priorities match the existing administration’s policies. But it’s unprecedented to have this imposed by PR specialists, rather than having people with scientific expertise interpret the policies (the Post confirmed this with former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman). And, typically, this is handled through future funding, rather than through the cancellation of programs that have already passed review.
The EPA arrangement is in sharp contrast with the Department of Energy, where existing grants are simply being edited to pretend climate change doesn’t exist but otherwise left intact.
Regardless of the implementation details, however, it’s clear that the Trump administration has a number of agencies that are overriding scientific expertise for the sake of ideological commitments.
JOHN TIMMER – 9/5/2017, 3:50 PM