Trump Plan Would ‘Reduce or Eliminate’ Important Data Access, Federal Science Official Warns

A USGS email alert to international scientists says a wide range of research areas would be hit, including work on flood risks, wildfires and climate change.

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U.S. Geological Survey scientist Sasha Reed studies how changing temperatures and precipitation patterns affect soil and ecosystems. Credit: Jennifer LaVista/USGS
U.S. Geological Survey scientist Sasha Reed studies how changing temperatures and precipitation patterns affect soil and ecosystems. The agency is warning international colleagues that data and research they rely on could be severely curtailed under President Trump's proposed budget. Credit: Jennifer LaVista/USGS

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A U.S. Geological Survey program coordinator has sent an alert to colleagues around the world, warning that the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget cuts, if approved, will undermine important data-gathering programs and cooperative studies in areas including forests, volcanoes, flooding, wildfires, extreme precipitation and climate change.

The email went to 500 researchers on June 19 to give them time to comment on the proposed changes and prepare. In it, Debra Willard, coordinator for the USGS Climate Research and Development Program, wrote that the cuts “would reduce or eliminate the availability of current data and collaborations between the USGS, other agencies and universities.”

The reductions threaten as many as 40 programs involved in monitoring the speed and severity of climate change impacts and the effects of other land use changes, Willard said.

So far, the agency has received responses from dozens of scientists in Europe, Asia, and North America.

“There was a consensus that suspension of the USGS projects would impede ongoing activities in the international research and policy communities,” Willard said of the responses.

Science advocacy groups say the proposed budget threatens U.S. leadership in important scientific fields and could leave American researchers isolated from the rest of the world.

Peter Frumhoff, science and policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the USGS research programs targeted for cuts provide important information for predicting natural hazards like floods, landslides and fires.

“In the Northeast, where I live, the USGS monitors extreme precipitation events. We can’t afford to be flying blind. These programs provide fundamental understandings about how to manage water, fire and forests,” he said. “Taking the pulse on the health of our nation’s resources in real-time in a changing climate gives critical baseline data that we need to protect communities,” he said.

On the international stage, the cuts would also damage America’s scientific reputation and global leadership position, said Alistair Jump, a forest ecologist at the University of Stirling in Scotland, who has worked with the USGS studying extreme climate impacts to forests, including links between drought and forest die-offs.

That research helps forest-reliant communities plan for a sustainable future. USGS research shapes tree-planting programs, as well as strategies for recreation, wildfire mitigation, and water and wildlife management.

“Restricting USGS’s ability to operate broadly and effectively on the national and global stages risks setting back our ability to solve environmental problems by decades,” Jump wrote in his response to the USGS letter.

Nicholas Arndt, an earth sciences professor at the Université de Grenoble, France, and committee head for the European Geosciences Union, said international programs that could be affected include those monitoring earthquakes and volcanic hazards, and the search for new water sources and other natural resources.

“The USGS and other U.S. agencies such as NOAA are actively involved in these programs. As head of the EGU Outreach Committee, I greatly regret the proposed budget cuts which, if put into practice, will have a major impact on research that is crucial if we are to understand the fate on our planet,” Arndt wrote.

The overall shifts in the budget are of big concern to American Geophysical Union Director and CEO Christine McEntee.  

“We do think it’s serious, and, if passed into law, it would have devastating effects on our efforts as a country to be innovative and competitive,” McEntee said. “From a U.S. perspective, cutting back on this type of research is counter to what the administration says it wants, like protecting public safety and national security, and spurring economic growth.”

McEntee said the AGU is organizing a lobbying effort, with scientists and citizens reaching out to lawmakers about the importance of USGS science. She’s hopeful that Congress will restore the funding during the budget process because there is a core of bipartisan support for earth and space science.

In a May 23 statement on the USGS budget, U.S. Interior Secretary Zinke said the cuts were aimed at “wasteful spending” and “a bloated Washington, D.C., bureaucracy,” and that funding would be redirected to exploiting domestic fossil fuel resources, with a focus on “Alaska, mid-continent and southeast regions of the United States.”

Willard explained in the email that “by fostering interdisciplinary research on the physical, chemical, and biological components of the Earth, climate R&D scientists are documenting the impacts of various changes on the Earth system to improve understanding of the vulnerability and resilience of different regions and sectors.”

Jump, the Scottish forest researcher, says being able to count on the support of USGS scientists like Craig Allen, a research ecologist based in New Mexico, has been critical to many international projects.

“I’m not sure that I’ve come across another individual who can talk with such knowledge and passion about so many different aspects of forest and landscape function, causes and implications of change, past present and future—and in the USA and wider world,” he said.

Jump says his research projects in the U.S. West, working with the USGS scientists, have been eye-opening.

“It struck me how rapidly humans can alter the functioning of our ecosystems at the landscape scale, and how poorly policy makers and politicians understand the consequences and their implications,” he said. “We take forests for granted, but our research shows just how fast we can change the way forests work and how seriously it can impact us in return.”

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