A federal environmental office that works to test the effects of chemical exposure on adults and children is being merged as part of a proposed consolidation at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The National Center for Environmental Research (NCER) will no longer exist as a standalone entity following plans to combine three EPA offices, the agency confirmed to The Hill on Monday.
An EPA spokesperson said that under the planned overhaul, employees currently working at the NCER would be reassigned elsewhere within the department, the EPA said, and the management of NCER’s research grants would continue.
“At the appropriate time, the science staff currently in NCER will be redeployed to the [Office of Research and Development] labs/centers/offices matching their expertise to organizational needs. This reorganization could result in a change of positions or functions. Staff in the affected organizations will retain the grade and career ladder of their position of record,” the spokesperson said.
NCER is perhaps best known for its handling of fellowships that study the effects of chemicals on children’s health.
The consolidation at EPA will bring together the EPA’s Office of Administrative and Research Support, the Office of Program Accountability and Resource Management, and the grants and contracts managed by the NCER to create a new Office of Resource Management.
Other EPA functions consolidated into the new office will include the handling of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, records management and budget formulation functions.
An EPA spokesperson said the organizational changes are meant to create more efficiency within the agency.
“EPA’s Office of Research and Development is one of the world’s leading environmental and human health research organizations. In order to maintain the quality and focus of our research, senior leaders from the research and development office are proactively taking steps to create management efficiencies within the organization,” the spokesperson said.
“These changes will help EPA’s Office of Research and Development be more responsive to agency priorities and funding realities.”’
The White House’s fiscal 2018 and 2019 budgets both proposed zeroing out major programs under the NCER, but lawmakers have yet to approve those proposals.
The NCER is largely known for the funding it provides through its premiere program, Science To Achieve Results (STAR). Under the STAR program, grants are given to the Children’s Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Research Centers, which were established in 1988 to discover methods to reduce children’s health risks from environmental factors.
Some health advocates fear the closure of NCER could ultimately affect key research programs.
“Those programs have been so successful in advancing our scientific understanding and our ability to address the ways that environmental chemicals can impact children’s health,” said Tracey Woodruff, a former senior scientist and policy adviser at the EPA under the Clinton and Bush administrations. “The children centers were really the first and only centers to uncover the relationship with prenatal exposure to flame retardants and IQ deficiencies in children.”
A report released by the National Academy of Sciences last year that was compiled at the EPA’s request championed the STAR program for its “numerous successes.”
“STAR has had numerous successes, such as in research on human health implications of air pollution, on environmental effects on children’s health and well-being, on interactions between climate change and air quality, and on the human health implications of nanoparticles. Those are just a few examples; many more could be cited,” the report read.
In a follow up email Tuesday, an EPA spokesperson emphasized that the planned re-organization was still in the proposal stages.
“ORD leadership is currently holding town halls with staff across the country to discuss this proposal, so everyone can work together to develop the best organization possible,” said EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman.
Woodruff called the decision to merge the NCER with the other offices, which currently do not focus on handling grants, extremely concerning.
“They make it sound like this is a way to create efficiency, but it masks what’s happening to this actually programmatic, scientific function of NCER and the STAR program. That makes you think, is this really just an efficiency argument masking their real intention to get rid of the research grant program, which they have said they want to do in the past?” she said.
“Answering FOIAs and administering scientific grants are not the same thing.”