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For U.S. science policy, big shift ahead

Here’s how Congress and Trump could affect the chemistry enterprise

by Government & Policy Department
January 16, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 3


A new, Republican-controlled Congress is planning to curb regulation and cut at least parts of the U.S. budget. Incoming President Donald Trump, who so far has made no strong connections to the science community, is out to make fundamental changes to the federal government. How their actions will ultimately reverberate through the chemistry enterprise is not yet clear. But leaders in Washington could affect U.S. chemists through shifts in trade policy, research funding, and regulation of drugs, pesticides, commercial chemicals, and more.


Research funding: Uncertainty surrounds federal budget

The election of Trump last fall was a shock for the science community. Now, it is grappling with more uncertainty than it has faced in years over science policy and the future of research funding.

“There is a new cast of characters and certainly not the traditionally strong ties to the scientific community,” says Howard Garrison, director for policy at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which represents 30 societies. “We are just going to have to wait and see.”

If the size of the sandbox is shrinking, that is going to bring science with it.
Matthew Hourihan, Director of the R&D Budget & Policy Program, American Association for the Advancement of Science.

That doesn’t mean there won’t be support for research. In the past, Republicans have been advocates for funding basic science, which they see as an important role of the federal government. This played out most recently in the 21st Century Cures Act, a law pushing for medical innovations, which passed in December with bipartisan support.

But many Republicans also present themselves as budget hawks who want to slash the federal deficit. That means they could push for overall cuts to the discretionary budget, which includes almost all science funding. They might also want to enforce sequestration, which passed in 2011 and mandated budget cuts that never fully went into effect but still resulted in the lowest grant funding rates in years for research agencies.

“If the size of the sandbox is shrinking, that is going to bring science with it,” says Matthew Hourihan, director of the R&D Budget & Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Science in controversial areas such as climate change or social science might be most at risk of cuts, he adds.

The nomination of Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) as director of the White House Office of Management & Budget could indicate cuts are on the horizon. OMB coordinates fiscal policy and the President’s proposed budget.

“We know that Rep. Mulvaney has spoken positively about sequestration, and he’s certainly a fiscal hawk,” Hourihan says. Mulvaney also questioned the government’s role in research funding during a congressional debate over Zika funding last year.

That means that supporters of science research will likely turn to the Congress to bolster science support. With dozens of new members of Congress and new chairs of important committees, “the general consensus is that we need to completely rebuild. And that’s okay,” explains Anthony Pitagno, director of advocacy at the American Chemical Society, which publishes C&EN.

The changes also might force research advocates to go beyond the traditional science-oriented committees to lobby those that have broader control over spending, especially the House and Senate budget committees. “This gives us an opportunity to reframe our issues,” he says. “We have to work channels that we haven’t for the last couple of years.

Garrison advocates for science groups maintaining a low profile while Trump and Congress work on fulfilling some of their campaign promises such as reforming Obamacare or immigration reform.

“Let’s wait until the dust settles and then build bridges to the new Administration,” he says.—Andrea Widener


Chemical regulation: TSCA implementation a priority

2017 TSCA milestones

EPA is expected to meet several deadlines this year mandated under the revised Toxic Substances Control Act

May: Publish scope of first 10 high-priority chemical risk evaluations

June: Develop process for determining whether chemicals are low or high priority for risk evaluation

June: Develop risk evaluation process

June: Require manufacturers to provide information to EPA on chemicals they made or used within the last decade

Determining how to review the potential risks of commercial chemicals is at the top of the Environmental Protection Agency’s agenda this year. EPA faces several deadlines related to implementation of the new Toxic Substances Control Act, which was enacted in June 2016. Over the next several years, the agency must evaluate the potential risks of chemicals in household items and industrial products sold in the U.S., starting with 10 high-priority substances. The new law gives EPA authority to request safety data for such chemicals, as well as to collect fees from industry to conduct evaluations.

EPA has already identified the first 10 high-priority chemicals for evaluation. By May, the agency must describe the scope of those evaluations. By June, EPA must have a risk evaluation process in place and a method to identify whether chemicals are low or high priority for evaluation. Also by June, EPA must require manufacturers to provide the agency with information on chemicals they made or used within the last 10 years.

The chemical industry and environmental groups are heavily engaged in discussions with the agency about new policies under TSCA. Early policies and interpretations of some provisions of the new law, particularly those related to EPA’s evaluation of new chemicals, have sparked debate.

The chemical industry claims that the agency’s interpretation of the law is slowing down the review of new chemicals and delaying their entry into the U.S. market. Public health and environmental activists are urging EPA to continue thoroughly reviewing the risks of all new chemicals.

At the very least, EPA under incoming President Trump will reconsider how it evaluates new chemicals, representatives from the chemical industry predict. It is less clear how the Trump Administration will handle pending TSCA rules developed by the Obama Administration, including proposals to ban the use of methylene chloride and N-methylpyrrolidone in paint strippers. Proposed rules restricting the use of trichloroethylene in aerosol spray degreasers, vapor degreasing agents, and dry cleaning spotting agents are also up in the air.—Britt Erickson


Nuclear power: Waste could finally find a home

Credit: Department Of Energy
The Department of Energy bored more than five miles of exploratory tunnels into Yucca Mountain.
A photograph of Yucca Mountain
Credit: Department Of Energy
The Department of Energy bored more than five miles of exploratory tunnels into Yucca Mountain.

Though completion of nuclear waste repository Yucca Mountain stalled in recent years, an effort to identify volunteer host sites for interim storage of nuclear waste gained traction last year and many expect it to gain momentum in 2017.

The Department of Energy last January kicked-off its community engagement program to identify U.S. sites willing to take on interim storage and permanent disposal of nuclear waste. A final report from DOE released in December 2016 outlined the initiative’s process and progress and summarized public comments.

According to the report, approximately 75,000 metric tons of used fuel from commercial nuclear reactors by the end of 2015 was being stored on-site at nuclear power plants throughout the U.S. An additional 2,000 metric tons is generated each year. Defense activities have produced more than 300 million liters of liquid, sludge, and solid high-level radioactive waste, DOE says.

Calls to solve the decades-old U.S. nuclear waste problem have come from outside and inside the halls of Congress.

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who leads the Senate appropriations subcommittee on energy, has called on his congressional colleagues to invest in energy research and find a path forward for nuclear waste management.

“We need to move on all tracks at the same time to solve the nuclear waste stalemate,” Alexander says. In the coming year, he adds, Congress should pass the proposed Nuclear Waste Administration Act, greenlight a pilot program for consolidated nuclear waste storage, and approve funds for private interim storage.

The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a lobbying organization for the nuclear industry, outlined its priorities last month in a memorandum to Trump and his transition team. The group, which has been a proponent of moving the nation’s used fuel to Yucca Mountain, said DOE should complete the licensing process for the site.

“The 114th Congress saw numerous legislative initiatives aimed at addressing our nation’s used fuel management strategy. The nuclear industry anticipates that interest will grow in the 115th Congress,” says Maria Korsnick, NEI’s CEO.—Jessica Morrison


Energy: Unclear path, tumultuous time for energy policy

Credit: Shutterstock

A photo of power lines.
Credit: Shutterstock

In the early weeks of the new Congress, Republican majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate are expected to develop plans to roll back energy- and environment-related programs and regulations. The exact hows and whats, however, are unclear.

Meanwhile, several aides say lawmakers will likely attempt to resurrect past bills cleared by the House in the last session of Congress but blocked in the Senate or by President Barack Obama. For instance, the House Energy & Commerce Committee is likely to revisit provisions in the proposed North American Security & Infrastructure Act, which cleared the House along party lines but did not pass the Senate. The measure’s provisions addressed electrical grid security, energy efficiency, and other areas.

Such bills are likely to be modified, reflecting the GOP’s new authority through the incoming Trump presidency as well as control of both bodies of Congress, aides say. Lawmakers are exploring legislative approaches that would spur energy-related infrastructure development.

On the Senate side, movement will be slower. The Senate Energy & Natural Resources committee will take up more than 40 of Trump’s nominees for key Energy and Interior Department posts. That will draw about three months of committee time, according to Senate aides.

Longtime supporters of energy R&D funding and the jobs that have come with it are worried and looking for ways to protect and support the Department of Energy’s science and technology research programs.

“My hunch is the new Congress is going to be deeply involved in regulatory and nomination battles early on,” says Robert Cowin, Union of Concerned Scientists’ government affairs director. “But right now, we are watching congressional budget conversations from a clean energy standpoint. Particularly, we are looking at funding for programs such as energy efficiency, Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), and grid modernization. On the basis of Trump’s transition team statements, these programs appear to have targets on their backs.

“But they are important and create jobs and we want to see them continue to be funded.”

Cowin notes the new Administration has promised to push tax reform. “There may be opportunities in tax code reform proposals to provide support for technology neutral, low-carbon projects.”—Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN


Climate Change: U.S. future in Paris Agreement uncertain

Trump’s position on the Paris Agreement to stem climate change isn’t yet clear. During the 2016 campaign, he pledged to “cancel” the Paris Agreement. After he was elected, Trump told the New York Times that he has “an open mind” about the climate deal.

The 2015 international agreement, ratified by 122 countries and the European Union, calls for each country’s greenhouse gas emissions to be capped at levels sufficient to keep global temperature rise below 2 °C, a goal set by policymakers. Some scientists say this level is likely to be sufficient to avoid the worst effects of global warming.

“Trump could formally pull the U.S. out over the next three years under the terms of the agreement,” says David Waskow, director of the international climate initiative of the World Resources Institute, an environmental nonprofit. The impact would be “significant” with worldwide repercussions, he says.

“Climate change has moved to the core of international agreements and diplomacy,” he says. “Retreating from Paris will send negative signals internationally, frankly, in other areas as well as climate. And it will make it very difficult for the U.S. to play a leadership role in the huge and emerging international marketplace for clean energy products,” Wasko says.

He pointed to China’s recent announcement that it will invest more than $360 billion over the next four years to speed up its use of renewable energy.

Environmental activists are gearing up to defend the Clean Power Plan, an Obama Administration regulation designed as the main means for the U.S. to implement the Paris Agreement. A group of states is contesting that rule in federal court—an effort that until recently was led by Trump’s pick to captain EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt.

Congress, too, may consider legislation to revoke that EPA rule, given that Republican lawmakers attempted to do so in 2015.—Jeff Johnson, special to C&EN


Pesticides: EPA to decide on several crop protection products


EPA is under a court order to make a final decision about the organophosphate insecticide chlorpyrifos by March 31. In response to a petition from environmental groups, the agency twice last year proposed to revoke all food tolerances for the chemical. Industry and farm groups say it is unlikely that the Trump Administration will support the proposed action because of the importance of the chemical to crop protection, but it is unclear how EPA would justify reversing course. The assessments underlying the agency’s proposal are controversial because EPA used human epidemiological data in some of its determinations. The chemical industry is challenging those assessments.



EPA plans to have its pesticide Scientific Advisory Panel of outside experts review the agency’s draft ecological assessment of the herbicide atrazine this year. EPA released the draft assessment in 2016, concluding that atrazine poses a health risk to many plants and animals. Farm groups and pesticide makers are urging the agency not to tighten restrictions on atrazine, saying it would render the chemical useless in controlling weeds. EPA is also expected to release its human health assessments for three triazine herbicides, including atrazine, later this year.

Glyphosate and 2,4-D

EPA finalized a proposal earlier this month that will allow the herbicide Enlist Duo—a combination of 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D) and glyphosate—to be used on genetically engineered cotton. The action also expands the number of states where the controversial mixture can be used. Enlist Duo, manufactured by Dow AgroSciences, was approved in 2014 for use on genetically engineered corn and soybeans in more than a dozen U.S. states. Wine growers in Texas are raising concerns about expanding the use of Enlist Duo, saying volatile herbicides such as 2,4-D are drifting into their vineyards from nearby cropland and damaging their fruit.—Britt Erickson


Trade: Trump signals major shift in import-export policy

Trump is promising to usher in a new era for trade policy that could signal trouble ahead for U.S. chemical manufacturers.

Last August during the campaign, Trump said he would shift the focus from expansive multilateral trade agreements to renegotiation or withdrawal from existing pacts that he contends have failed to protect U.S. manufacturing jobs.

We will negotiate fair, bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores.
Donald Trump

As one of the nation’s top exporting industries, the chemical sector has been a strong proponent of the 14 free trade agreements the U.S. has entered into with 20 countries.

“We would like to see a continuance of trade policies that will create new opportunities and address barriers that impede the ability of U.S. specialty chemical manufacturers from growing their businesses,” says Brittany Mountjoy, manager of government relations at the Society of Chemical Manufacturers & Affiliates, an industry trade group.

SOCMA’s member companies—mainly small and mid-sized businesses—are “hopeful about the new Administration,” and the benefits it might bring to specialty chemical makers, Mountjoy says.

Trump, who has long disdained international trade deals that he says make it easier to offshore U.S. jobs, has promised to immediately ditch the Trans Pacific Partnership. He has described the pending free trade agreement signed by 12 countries around the Pacific Rim, including the U.S., Japan, and Australia, as a job-killing “potential disaster for our country.”

“Instead, we will negotiate fair, bilateral trade deals that bring jobs and industry back onto American shores,” Trump said in a late November 2016 video announcing his transition plans.

Last June, he threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the North American Free Trade Agreement, which connects Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, if Mexico doesn’t agree to renegotiate the pact. The 22-year-old agreement, Trump argues, has hollowed out U.S. manufacturing to Mexico’s benefit.

With vast supplies of low-cost natural gas from shale deposits and $175 billion invested in new factories and expanded production capacity, U.S. chemical exports are projected to grow on average 7% per year through 2021, according to the American Chemistry Council, an industry association. But meeting that potential will require new trade agreements, it claims.

“We agree that trade should be fair, and also know firsthand that trade can unlock potential in our economy and create jobs here at home,” ACC says. “We hope to work with Congress and the Trump Administration to chart a path forward on trade that will help American businesses thrive and benefit American workers.”—Glenn Hess, special to C&EN


Environment: Scrutiny of EPA’s scientific review process will continue

Congressional scrutiny of the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific review process could signal changes for the agency this year.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chair of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee, last month challenged the scientific validity of the Environmental Protection Agency’s multiyear hydraulic fracturing study. Smith accused EPA of changing its mind on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water supplies.

“It is clear that the agency needs to enact reforms of its entire scientific review process,” Smith said in a statement after the release of EPA’s hydraulic fracturing study. “I look forward to working with the next Administration to enact critical reforms to put EPA back on course in pursuing transparency and sound science.”

Smith cosponsored legislation in the 114th Congress aimed at changing the way EPA selects external experts. The House passed the proposed EPA Science Advisory Board Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 1029), but a companion bill introduced in the Senate failed to gain traction.

The legislation, which could re-surface, would have set new requirements for membership selection to EPA’s expert advisory committees and panels.

The 2015 bill would have opened the door to more EPA advisers from industry.

It also would have prohibited scientists who have received EPA grants within three years from serving, restricted experts from participating in advisory evaluations related to their own research, and required the board to provide written responses to “significant comments” from the public.—Jessica Morrison


Policy outlook roundup

A man in suit holds aloft a small wooden mallet while standing in front of a giant flag and at a podium.
Credit: Associated Press

Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Speaker of the House of Representatives, determines which legislation will come before lawmakers for a vote.

Business: Administration could seek to stop chemical makers’ mergers

The Trump transition’s agriculture adviser, Bruce Rastetter, wants the incoming Administration to halt pending mergers of major chemical and seed companies. These include deals between Dow and DuPont, Bayer and Monsanto, and China National Chemical and Syngenta. Rastetter, CEO of Summit Agricultural Group, told theDes Moines Register the mergers would jack up farmers’ costs because they would amalgamate seed suppliers and agrochemical producers.—Cheryl Hogue

Diversity: Immigration reform efforts could impact scientists

Immigration reform was a cornerstone of President-elect Trump’s campaign platform, with Trump saying he wanted to limit the number of foreign workers who came into the U.S. Scientists are most worried about crackdowns on the H-1B, the visa for highly skilled workers. Trump has attacked the H-1B visa the past.—Andrea Widener

Consumer products: Momentum to boost cosmetics oversight grows

Credit: Shutterstock
An artful arrangement of cosmetic products.
Credit: Shutterstock

Cosmetics and personal care products manufacturers, health groups, and others are urging U.S. lawmakers to reintroduce the Personal Care Products Safety Act this year. The legislation would boost FDA’s oversight of cosmetics ingredients and require cosmetics companies to register with the agency.—Britt Erickson

Drug development: FDA to implement 21st Century Cures law

FDA is gearing up to approve pharmaceuticals more quickly through a new law enacted in December. Though opponents question the safety of accelerated approval, outgoing FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf says the law will support agency “efforts to modernize and improve efficiency in clinical trial design.” The Trump transition team has made no announcement about FDA work on the 21st Century Cures law as yet.—Jessica Morrison

Education: Higher education legislation may gain momentum in 2017

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has been working on a revamp of the Higher Education Act for several years, so he will likely push it in 2017. The parts of the bill that focus on science teacher training, access for disadvantaged students, and reducing administrative burdens for universities are all of interest to the science community.—Andrea Widener

Persistent Pollutants: Industry continues to seek U.S. ratification of treaty

Chemical manufacturers are asking Congress to make the U.S. an official treaty partner to the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants. Under that agreement, countries are reducing or eliminating the release of substances that can cause serious health problems. Among chemicals it covers are several obsolete pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls. The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, supports the U.S. becoming a full participant in the 2001 accord, a move that environmental activists back too. “As we work to highlight issues that are important to U.S. manufacturers and American competitiveness, ACC will continue to include ratification of the Stockholm Convention,” the group says.—Cheryl Hogue

UPDATE: This story was updated to reflect EPA’s finalized decision, which was made after C&EN went to press.


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