Trump EPA Cuts Could Transform Infectious Disease Research

Researchers are expressing concern that funding for research climate-monitoring programs may not come through and that this would negatively impact the study of some infectious diseases.

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.

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.