In summary

Calling the political vetting of federal research grant applications “a significant threat to academic freedom,” UC faculty are urging the university to better track whether and why its proposals are turned down in the Trump era.

Since President Donald Trump took office, scientists have criticized his administration for reportedly allowing political appointees and their aides to spike grants at the Environmental Protection Agency and Interior Department, proposing deep cuts to climate research, and barring government employees who study global warming from presenting their findings.

But how might such decisions affect funding for scientific research at California universities?

That’s the question University of California faculty raised in a recent letter to university chief Janet Napolitano.

Calling the political vetting of federal research grant applications “a significant threat to academic freedom,” the letter, endorsed by UC’s Academic Council and sent earlier this month, urged the university to better track whether and why its proposals are turned down. It also said tenure committees should avoid penalizing professors if they miss out on funding because their research interests clash with Trump administration priorities.

“It has long been the case that funding priorities change from one administration to the next,” the letter reads. “What is new is the present administration’s open hostility toward science, particularly science that touches on climate change, that examines the impact of fossil fuels on public health, or that entails international collaboration.”

UC Davis law professor Christopher Elmendorf, who wrote the letter on behalf of the university’s academic freedom committee, said his committee has not yet uncovered any instances of UC grant applications being denied for political reasons. But he said the committee heard reports of faculty members trying to avoid “certain magic words” when asking the government for funding.

“If you can write your grant application describing it as being about climate science or write it as being about something that you don’t describe as climate science, maybe you choose not to use those words,” he said.

UC received about $3.4 billion in federal research funding in the 2016-17 academic year, with the bulk of it coming from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. More than $200 million of those federal dollars support climate-related research, according to a UC report. Both UC and California State University have benefited from fellowships and research partnerships sponsored by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—two agencies running climate science programs that Trump has targeted for budget cuts in 2019.

Because application processes can be lengthy, and many grants run for multiple years, the choices federal officials make today could take a while to hit universities’ pocketbooks.

Napolitano told CALmatters earlier this month that she was pleased Congress has by and large preserved research spending in the face of cuts proposed by the White House. But university officials were “disturbed,” she said, by a proposed EPA rule that would insist the agency use only scientific studies based on “publicly available” data in deciding what to regulate.

While EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt argues the rule would increase transparency, scientists point out that it would prevent consideration of a wide swath of public health and environmental studies, which often rely on patients’ confidential health records. UC joined the Union of Concerned Scientists and other groups in opposing the rule, saying in a letter to Pruitt last week that it “would exclude relevant and important science, compromising public health.”

The involvement of political appointees in the EPA’s grant making process first emerged as an issue last fall, with a Washington Post report that former Trump campaign aide John Konkus, an administrator in the agency’s public affairs office, was granted power to accept or reject grant awards and solicitations drafted by career employees.

Konkus, who has since left the agency, had axed nearly $2 million in grants destined for universities and nonprofits, the Post reported, and told staff he was censoring mentions of the “double-C-word,” a reference to climate change. The Interior Department developed a similar vetting process, according to the Post.

UC faculty leaders say the new review systems upset a longstanding, if imperfect, compact between federal agencies and academia about research funding: The government puts up the money and sets broad priorities, but scientists decide which specific research projects have the most merit.

In an email to CALmatters, an EPA spokesman said the review process “is important because it ensures EPA is acting as a good fiduciary of the taxpayers’ money.” No grants destined for California had been withheld after political review in 2018, the spokesman said.

The Interior Department did not respond to a request for comment.

Regardless of whether the University of California will be directly affected, Academic Council chair Shane White said that Trump administration officials “putting their hands deep into the (grantmaking) process” sets a precedent that faculty view as dangerous.

“This cannot be good for the university, but the bigger problem is it’s worse for humankind,” White said. “Such interference could only slow discovery and advancement of the knowledge that could be used to address society’s greatest challenges.”

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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Felicia Mello covers the state's economic divide. Prior to this role, she was editor for CalMatters' College Journalism Network, a collaboration with student journalists across California to cover higher...