Looming Budget Cuts Put Scientists In Limbo

Apr 21, 2017
Originally published on April 26, 2017 9:15 am

Eric Dexter pulls a giant windsock out a plastic tub and drops it into the Columbia River.

“So now we’re going catch the zooplankton samples, which is what I'm most interested in,” he said.

He’s looking for invasive species – but not the kind you usually hear about. Invasive plankton are practically invisible. They come in the ballast water of cargo ships, often from Asia. To even find these microscopic organisms, you need a plankton fishing net.

“It’s made out of a really fine fabric," he said. "The holes in it are about 75 microns, so a lot smaller than the width of a human hair.”

As a PhD student at Washington State University, Dexter maintains the only continuous record of the Columbia River’s plankton community.

Every month, he gets a check from the Environmental Protection Agency’s STAR Fellowship program. The agency pays for his living expenses and the costs of his research.

But these days, he never knows whether his check is going to show up.

“As far as I can tell, I will find out if it's been cancelled when my paycheck stops arriving," he said.

Dexter was among the thousands of people who flood the streets of Portland on Saturday as part of the national March for Science. While the main event was in Washington, D.C., Portland hosted one of more than 500 satellite marches planned across the country.

The event was organized in part to protest Trump administration policies, including a budget proposal that would cut billions in funding for scientific research.

The budget still needs to be approved by Congress, so no one knows which proposed cuts will pass. But the proposal alone means many scientists have suddenly found their jobs in jeopardy.

Layoff by leaked documents?

Dexter has gotten one e-mail from the EPA since President Donald Trump took office. It said no one knew whether his STAR Fellowship would be frozen during the grant freeze back in January. That's the last he's heard.

“I’m not sure if anyone is in charge of this program anymore," he said. "If they are, they haven’t communicated it to us.”

Then, last month, a leaked document revealed the entire program is on the chopping block under the Trump administration's budget proposal.

The budget calls for cutting EPA funding by 31 percent, slashing a quarter of the staff and eliminating dozens of programs, including the fellowship that pays Dexter's bills.

"The entire program has been slated to be deleted," Dexter said. "The only information I have is from leaked documents, but those documents are pretty clear."

So, now he waits and continues to worry that he might not have income to do his research and pay his mortgage. The people he knows who work for the EPA are living in a similar state of uncertainty.

"Everybody goes to work knowing that might be their last day at work," he said. "So, everybody's afraid they could be fired at any moment."

The EPA declined an interview request and responded to questions with a statement that says, in part:

“While many in Washington insist on greater spending, the EPA is focused on great value and results. The EPA will partner with states to ensure a thoughtful approach is used to maximize every dollar to protect air, land and water.”

'It's making a lot of us nervous'

In addition to the EPA cuts, the Trump administration is calling for 20 percent cuts to the National Institutes of Health and U.S. Department of Energy’s science office.

The looming cuts are putting a lot of scientists on edge, according to Scott Black, an ecologist and executive director of the Xerces Society in Portland. His organization is one of the sponsors of the Portland March for Science.

Related: 13 of the nerdiest signs from Seattle's March for Science

“I think most scientists are facing possible cuts,” he said. “It’s making a lot of us nervous because nobody knows whether it’s going to be them, whether it’s going to be somebody else, whether it’s going to be everybody.”

He’s hoping the march will push science advocates in Congress to minimize the cuts as lawmakers hash out the federal budget.

"I don’t think it's going to be as dire as is proposed," Black said. "That said, it's going to be a rollback, and I think scientists at universities, conservation organizations and any research institutions are going to feel this."

The "war on science" didn’t start with Trump administration, Black said, but the election has rallied scientists to stand up and fight for their profession.

"I've never seen anything like this, and I've been doing this work for 30 years,” he said. "This isn't necessarily our comfort level. This isn't what we normally do is talk about how important science is, but now's the time to do it."

Politicizing science

Michael Halpern with the Union of Concerned Scientists said under the proposed federal budget a lot of science just wouldn't happen.

"The easiest way to politicize science is to prevent the government from collecting the information in the first place," he said. "We wouldn't even be able to collect a lot of the information we need to make public health and environmental decisions.

But chemist and cancer researcher Shaughnessy Naughton has another way of politicizing science. She started the group 314 Action in an effort to help scientists run for office.

"One thing politicians have shown us is that they are unashamed to mettle in science," she said. "And I think the way we combat that is to claim a seat at the table and get more scientists elected to public office."

Naughton herself ran unsuccessfully to represent a U.S. House district in Pennsylvania. She walked away convinced that Congress needs more members who have science backgrounds. So far, she's had more than 4,000 scientists sign up to say they want to run for public office.

"We need them at all levels of government," she said. "One of the skill sets scientists bring is a fact-based approach to decision-making. Having more problem-solvers and less ideologues would be beneficial."

The best possible outcome?

Back in his lab, Dexter shows me one of the invasive plankton species he's seen taking over the Columbia every summer. He worries that it could wipe out the food supply for salmon.

To the naked eye, it looks like a puddle of dirty water. But under a microscope, a whole different picture emerges.

“We see now little bits of what looked like debris are actually little organisms," he said. "Every single organism under the microscope here is invasive.”

It’s the equivalent of looking at a huge valley and seeing only invasive blackberry bushes.

“But when all these changes are happening on the microscopic level, we really don’t know what the consequences are, which is to me a little scary,” he said.

But even scarier for Dexter is that soon there may not be any funding for scientists to study it. Even the best case scenario for finishing his PhD looks a little bleak right now.

"The best possible outcome for me is I spend the next two years worrying that my scholarship will be cut any day and it never happens," he said. "I feel like the government is actively hostile to my research, and that creates a really hostile job market for me. The past year has made it clear to me that I'm going to be fighting an uphill battle just to simply do my job."

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