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Trump EPA Cuts Could Transform Infectious Disease Research

FEB 11, 2017 | CAROLE ELLIS
When President Donald Trump’s administration began removing mentions of climate change, formally defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “any significant change in the measures of climate lasting for an extended period of time,” from the EPA website, the entire climatological community entered something of a tailspin. When administrative officials within various federal research bodies followed this action with a cryptic memo instructing employees not to interact with the press or other public officials, panic set in. As mentions of carbon pollution as a cause of climate change and former President Obama’s climate plans involving tribal assistance and international cooperation disappeared from the website entirely while other links were broken or allowed to remain misdirected, the national research community wondered what would come next.
 
Although the face of the EPA’s climate change web presence remains intact for now, scientists in far broader-reaching areas of study than simply those focused on the meteorological and climatological are getting worried. In fact, some scientists warn that if the EPA eventually eliminates some or even all of its climate-change funding, the “pipeline” of scientists into myriad fields of study could dry up, as Daniel Cohan, PhD, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University, described it to Contagion®.
 
Dr. Cohan studies behavioral drivers that affect decarbonization processes and policy throughout the US economy and was, at the time of the interview with Contagion®, actively involved in the final process of submitting a grant to the EPA.
 
“Until the decisions are announced, I think we really won’t have any clear confidence that any proposals will be funded at all,” he said, adding, “We’ve just been very thankful for the opportunity to assemble this proposal.”
 
“Any funded research grants for climate, or any other discipline for that matter, fund a team of researchers at all levels,” explained Dr. Cohan, adding that he builds his research teams “vertically” to integrate undergraduate researchers, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. “These research grants are our key way of training the next generation that will be our scientists and engineers, not just our future climate scientists. The skills they develop translate into the corporate world, public affairs, and a wide range of affairs that these individuals go on to pursue,” he said.
 
Although the initial hubbub based around the freezing of EPA funding and many other federal science programs has subsided as scientists learned that the move was more administrative than directly aggressive (the Trump administration itself pointed out that the move was largely a “housekeeping” one that happened under Presidents Bush and Obama as well), scientists still worry that the coming year could bring major changes to federal agencies and how they fund research. Eliminating just one topical source of funding, like climate change, could have far-reaching effects on many other disciplines, including infectious diseases.
 
For example, research on Lyme disease is often based around climate studies and funded by climate-change-related sources. This is because increased incidences of cases of Lyme disease in northern states, such as New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, tend to indicate warming trends since the ticks that carry the disease are “mostly active when temperatures are above 45˚F,” according to EPA research. When winters become shorter and the weather becomes warmer overall, an area becomes a more “suitable tick habitat” and more humans may be exposed to Lyme disease.
 
“Tick-borne disease patterns are usually less influenced by short-term changes in the weather than by longer-term climate change,” EPA researchers state.
 
In this case, the issue is not whether or not climate change is manmade, but simply what changes occur from year to year. However, loss of funding for climate-change-related research could still affect the programs that track this data.
 


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