Trump Political Appointees Interfere in Scientific Grants Process Take Two: The Department of Interior

, research scientist, Center for Science and Democracy | January 10, 2018, 3:33 pm EDT
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The Department of Interior (DOI) has directed political appointees to begin reviewing discretionary grants to make sure that they align with the priorities of the Trump administration. The discretionary grants include any grants worth $50,000 or more that are intended to be distributed to “a non-profit organization that can legally advance advocacy” or “an institution of higher education.” The memo detailing the directive was sent by Scott J. Cameron, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management, and Budget.

The directive is being strictly enforced. Cameron’s memo notes that “Instances circumventing the Secretarial priorities or the review process will cause greater scrutiny and will result in slowing down the approval process for all awards.” The sentence is not only bolded, it’s italicized as well. To explain why the new grants process was needed, Interior Spokeswoman Heather Swift said that “the new guidance continued the responsible stewardship of tax dollars.”

Remember when this happened at the EPA?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) basically instituted the same process of grant review last year. While it is not uncommon for political appointees to get involved in the grants process, their involvement is generally limited to broadening solicitations for grant proposals. 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. Political appointees have generally broadened FOA’s in the past so that they are more inclusive, not restrictive to an administration’s priorities as is being seen here with DOI’s new process.

Agencies have grant review systems already in place

DOI already had a grant review system in place before this new system came along that worked just fine. This begs the question: why they are changing it? Part of the grant review system is that discretionary grants are reviewed by independent experts who assess grant proposals using a uniform rating or scoring system established by the awarding agency. 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). Therefore, as former Secretary of Interior David J. Hayes noted, “Subjugating Congress’s priorities to 10 of the Secretary’s own priorities is arrogant, impractical and, in some cases, likely illegal.”

Based on expert criteria, or those set out by statutes, a panel of experts will assign a score to each reviewed proposal and then meet to discuss the merits of each. 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.

A list of recommended grants for funding are then sent to the head of the program, who may or may not be a political appointee, for review. 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. However, what is common practice when a head of a program receives this list is that they generally agree with the expert’s recommendations. Former EPA administrator under President George W. Bush, Christine Todd Whitman, chimed in on this issue when it happened at EPA, “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.”

Will DOI use this new process to delete science?

In the case of EPA political appointees reviewing grants, scientifically defensible language was removed from many descriptions of grant projects, and some grants were rescinded that were already recommended by a panel of experts. It was clear that the new process was specifically set up to undermine science and scientific experts at EPA, especially those working on climate change related issues.

DOI doesn’t have a good track record of supporting science lately, having halted two important studies by the National Academies of Science, and completely scrapping climate change work from its new strategic plan. It has yet to be seen if the new grant review process will result in scientifically defensible language being deleted from grant descriptions at DOI, or if the agency will rescind important scientific work like was done at EPA. However, the scientific community will be watching for such attacks on science and we’ll fight back against them if this administration continues this appalling tactic.

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