Kathleen Rest, PhD, MPA, executive director, Union of Concerned Scientists
Bernard D. Goldstein, M.D., professor emeritus and dean emeritus, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health
It’s been a tough time for the Environmental Protection Agency lately – even beyond the federal investigations into Administrator Scott Pruitt’s ethical lapses, extravagant use of taxpayer dollars, and skirting of federal law and public processes to favor corporate interests.
While Pruitt’s scandals garner well-deserved public attention, the very foundation of the agency is at risk – and largely out of the public eye. We’re talking about the science and technology that enable EPA to do the job it was intended to do – protect public health and the environment on which it depends.
Budget negotiations for the next fiscal year are underway on Capitol Hill, and we fear that science and public health protections are at risk. The Trump administration has made no secret of its contempt for EPA. The president proposed crippling cuts for the science and technology component of its budget for next year — cutting air and energy research by 66 percent; sustainable communities research by 60 percent; chemical safety research by 60 percent; and safe and sustainable water resources by 36 percent.
Last week the U.S. House Interior and Environment Appropriations Subcommittee released a comparatively better bill, yet still cut $100 million from the agency budget. The science and technology account bore a staggering $62 million of this reduction, despite comprising less than 1 percent of EPA’s overall budget.
The federal budget may not be top of mind for most of us, but what it does and doesn’t pay for has real implications. As the environment is a critical determinant of health, EPA is actually a public health agency. Its science and technology are key to safeguarding the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we live and play on, and the safety of the thousands of chemicals used in homes, schools, workplaces, and in the products we use every day. Cutting the agency’s research budget puts public health at risk.
Know someone with asthma, heart, or respiratory disease? More than half of the country – 166 million people – live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution. EPA scientists and analysts monitor air quality levels, estimate exposure to air pollutants, and provide tools and technical guidance to understand and reduce their health risks. While the success of EPA and the Clean Air Act are noteworthy, it is foolhardy to cut science-based efforts on air pollution when so many remain at risk.
Care about the safety of our drinking water or the cleanliness of the lakes, streams, and rivers where we fish, swim, and play? EPA scientists are core to understanding, monitoring, and addressing these risks. And the safety of new chemicals coming into the market? EPA scientists use the latest research and methods to assess their risks.
Take pesticides, for example. Between February 2016 and February 2017, 2,577 pesticide exposure incidents were reported to the National Pesticide Information Center. EPA science informs efforts to register and re-evaluate pesticides to protect users, applicators, farmworkers, and the public as a whole.
EPA guidance and oversight are also central to American industry’s success in safely developing novel technologies that respond to societal challenges.
EPA is home to three national labs and four national centers located in 14 facilities across the country — hidden gems in our nation’s science and public health arsenal. The experts in these facilities are the linchpins of EPA’s research and development efforts. They are also part of the economic and social fabric of their local communities.
No matter where you call home or what party your elected representative belongs to, we share a common commitment to our nation’s health. Without a robust federal scientific research enterprise, including support for the public servants who labor year after year to keep us safe, it is hard to imagine how EPA can address the problems we face today, let alone the threats we will face tomorrow.
As public health professionals, we have had the privilege of federal service under both Republican and Democratic administrations and have seen the political tides ebb and flow on core policy issues. But despite the political differences between the Reagan and Clinton administrations, environmental science had remarkably more respect and bipartisan support than it does now.
There is an emerging opportunity for our elected leaders to come together and deliver something that will benefit their constituents today and for years to come. As they negotiate the budget, they can invest in the science and technology account at the EPA. It’s an investment in our future, and nothing is more bipartisan than that.
Kathleen Rest, PhD, MPA is executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists. She was Deputy Director and Acting Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) under President Clinton.
Bernard D. Goldstein, M.D., is a professor emeritus and dean emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. He was chairman of the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator for research and development under President Reagan.