Officials at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) are bracing for budget cuts that would hinder traditional in-house science as well as extramural grants. Last week a Senate spending panel told the agency to cut $60 million from its 2004 request--more than 10% of the amount in its major research division. "This would cut the legs out from under EPA," says Linda Greer of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization. "It slashes at the core capability of the EPA to do good science." The Senate version comes 2 months after the House of Representatives pared the agency's research by 1.5%.
Overall, the Senate panel would leave the EPA budget for science and technology at its current level of $716 million rather than at the $731 million requested in February by President George W. Bush. But the agency will have less money available for toxicology studies and other key activities. Part of the problem is EPA's growing portfolio of homeland security research, such as creating new technology for protecting water treatment plants. The Senate budget includes the entire $50.8 million that EPA requested--up 176% from the $18.4 million it received last year.
But important research is getting left behind, EPA and outside scientists say. A prime example is the $6.2 million Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS), a database of information on human health risks from 200 or so chemicals, used by state and federal regulators to make risk assessments. "I can't stress enough how widely used IRIS is," says Jim Solyst, head of science policy work at the American Chemistry Council. EPA proposed doubling its spending on IRIS, allowing it to put 50 new and revised risk assessments into the database. Both the Senate and the House versions nix that idea, however, and hold IRIS to its present level.
The biggest blow to EPA research in the Senate plan is a $40 million cut to be taken at the agency's discretion. Paul Gilman, who heads EPA's Office of Research and Development, says that funding for new projects, such as efforts in computational toxicology and childhood cancer, will probably be cut 65%. Beyond that, Gilman says, "you have to start asking whether you cut whole programs and close facilities." EPA's main extramural grants program, a $100 million effort called STAR, could see up to a 36% cut, he adds.
The House and Senate will resolve their versions of budgets later this fall. That conference will likely tighten the squeeze, as the House version includes $40.5 million of its own earmarks, in addition to the Senate's $33.5 million.