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Trump EPA Cuts Could Transform Infectious Disease Research

FEB 11, 2017 | CAROLE ELLIS
Although tick-borne diseases are an important tool for studying climate change, the truth of the matter is that climate change also plays an important role in research relating to the treatment and cure of the diseases in its “toolbox.” For example, the development of predictive frameworks used for monitoring the spread and diversity of pathogens like malaria and tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) has often hinged on climate-related funding.
 
“More than 100 years of research has firmly established that temperature and other climatic variables strongly affect the physiology and demography of free-living and parasitic species,” observed Sonia Altizer, PhD, Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and UGA Athletic Association Professor of Ecology at the University of Georgia in a recent review article. She added, “Future work must continue to anticipate and monitor pathogen diversity and disease trends in natural ecosystems and identify opportunities to mitigate the impacts of climate-driven disease emergence.”
 
Dr. Altizer’s research is a prime example of work that could be affected by sweeping changes to climate-change-related funding, even though the ubiquitous term “global warming” has little to no presence in much, if any, of her team’s work. Her laboratory team focuses not on climate change, but on the spread of infectious diseases via several different vectors including monarch butterflies and mammalian parasites.
 
Because migratory movements and parasitic survival hinge largely on temperature shifts, it is only natural that tracking climate change plays an integral role in many of the researchers’ work. Some of that research is funded by sources like the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS), which focuses, in part, on “the ecological effects of climate change” using interdisciplinary studies. The center is self-described as “highly cost effective” in part due to its “disciplinary neutrality” that encourages parties to share research and results among experts in different fields and disciplines in order to maximize every researcher’s results. Such models of funding and research certainly may come to the forefront in the coming months and years if more traditional sources of funding for climatological study are broadly altered by the current administration.
 
In the end, the bigger issue than whether or not the new administration supports, debunks, or ignores climate change entirely is what happens to the federal funding for scientific programs dedicated to climate change monitoring. The data from these programs are used by programs like Dr. Altizer’s and Dr. Cohan’s that play enormous roles in predicting the spread of disease and in training future scientists and engineers in multiple disciplines. The data from their research may then be used to develop preventative measures and guide public policy in ways that could change our economy for the better, and even implement treatments and cures.
 
Fortunately for the EPA and many of its scientists, those long-term monitoring programs seem to fall under the president’s new plans for the EPA to focus “on its essential mission of protecting our air and water.” However, Dr. Cohan summed it up this way, “To imply that you could isolate air and water quality and concerns from climate change is an outdated notion. Both the impacts and solutions of these challenges are inevitably linked.”
 
Editor’s note: At the time of publication, the EPA’s official list of “priorities” was not available online.
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