There is now a political appointee of the Trump administration at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), John Konkus, reviewing grant solicitations and proposals in the public affairs office. It has been reported that Konkus is on the lookout for any reference to “climate change” in grant solicitations in attempt to eliminate this work from the agency’s competitive programmatic grants. So, is this normal?
Grants and government
The US Federal Government gave out nearly $663 billion in grant funding in fiscal year 2017. Such funding pays for a wide range of state and local government services, such as health care, transportation, income security, education, job training, social services, community development, and environmental protection. Additionally, approximately $40 billion in grant funding from federal agencies funds scientific research annually, although the amount of funding for research and development from the federal government has declined in recent years.
Given the large amount of grant funding that the federal government gives out annually, it is critical that the government has: 1) guidelines that provide guidance on what type of work the government grant will fund, and 2) a process for determining who receives funding. While each grant is unique in its considerations of what makes a good candidate for funding, there is a relatively standard process through which government grants are advertised and funded. The majority of this information can be found at www.grants.gov.
The grant solicitation
The first step in the process for funding of scientific grants is for a government agency to solicit proposals from interested parties (i.e., scientists working outside the government). The US Federal Government refers to these solicitations as “Funding Opportunity Announcements” or FOAs. These FOAs include information about what type of work the agency is expecting and whether or not the applicant would be eligible for funding. Thus, an FOA is extremely important for both the government and the applicant because it highlights the agency’s priorities for the funding, which also serves as a guideline for an applicant’s proposal.
The agency must first consider what type of work is currently needed in the US. In the case of science, the agency assesses what is currently unknown in our scientific knowledge on a given subject. Additionally, agencies will determine what special considerations are needed to make the grant work more impactful—these may include work that focuses on environmental justice or coal communities, for example. These considerations are typically discussed in the FOAs, and grants that include these special considerations in their proposals are typically ranked as more competitive relative to others that do not.
The FOA is reviewed by a panel of experts, which consist of career officials across the federal government for most agencies. It isn’t uncommon for political appointees to review an FOA. Political appointees generally broaden the FOA so it’s more inclusive, asking questions such as, “do you think that we might want to consider adding a special consideration for communities recently affected by natural disasters?” What does seem to be uncommon is eliminating scientifically defensible language like the “double C word.”
Reviewing grant proposals and awards
At many federal agencies, grants are reviewed by career agency staffers who have expertise for the grant program. However, in the cases of the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, a panel of non-federal scientists who have scientific expertise in the relevant research areas and scientific disciplines review submitted proposals. All proposed federal grants typically go through a first round review where they are screened for eligibility. If the proposal does not meet eligibility criteria, it is not reviewed further.
Those proposals that are eligible for funding are then reviewed by a panel of career agency staffers who are experts for the grant program’s work. The proposals are evaluated based on criteria specific to the grant – for some programmatic grants these criteria are dictated by statutory authority (e.g., grants in the brownfields program at the EPA). Based on these criteria, the panel scores each proposal. The proposals that receive higher scores are deemed more competitive relative to those with lower scores.
Depending on the amount of funding available for a grant program, the panel will recommend a percentage of the top scoring grants to be funded. The panel also takes into consideration other factors that may have been emphasized in the FOA (e.g., a community that was just ravaged by a natural disaster that is in greater need of funding relative to other communities).
The recommended set of proposals for funding are then sent to the head of the program, which can be a political appointee of a presidential administration. The amount of information on recommendations that the appointee might receive varies. Sometimes the appointee might receive abstracts of proposals or they might just receive a list of the institutions or researchers recommended for funding. The appointee typically agrees with the recommendation of the expert panel. It would be uncommon for the political appointee to not fund a proposal recommended for funding, as is being done by Konkus.
Ignoring science in grants will harm others
Is it uncommon for political appointees to have a say in the grant funding process? No. What is uncommon is for political appointees to politicize science in grant solicitation language or in rescinding proposals that were recommended by a panel of experts. As former EPA administration Christine Todd Whitman chimed in on this issue, “We didn’t do a political screening on every grant, because many of them were based on science, and political appointees don’t have that kind of background.”
As is common with this administration, we are seeing proposals that mention the “double C word” as a target. Konkus rescinded funding from EPA to two organizations that would have supported the deployment of clean cookstoves in the developing world—a simple solution to curb the impacts of climate change, but also to limit pollution that disproportionately affects women and children in these areas. Who knows what Konkus will rescind next, but it’s likely to have harmful effects on people. Maybe Konkus should leave decisions for funding up to the expert panels. They are categorized as experts for a reason.