US green chemists and environmental campaigners were shocked to hear over Easter that the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had cancelled a long-planned US$20-million green chemistry research programme without explanation, three weeks before the deadline for grant applications. After days of silence and speculation, the agency announced on Twitter yesterday (11 April) that it would re-issue the funding call in the summer — leaving scientists grateful and supportive, but still puzzled, and uneasy about whether a future programme might mutate or vanish.
12 April update: By email, the EPA has confirmed it will re-issue the call in summer. Its explanation is still opaque:
“The two solicitations were cancelled in order to allow for a review to ensure new and emerging research is accurately reflected and incorporated into the request for applications. On rare occasions, solicitations are cancelled or revised when necessary to ensure the integrity of our grants process.”
The EPA had spent the past year planning the programme, which researchers say is a major federal funding boost for green chemistry, an emerging and multidisciplinary area of science and engineering that aims to reduce toxic chemicals and chemical processes (for a summary, see the Nature feature ‘It’s not easy being green’). After much discussion, on 3 January the EPA issued requests for applications (RFAs) for four $5-million research centres. Deadlines were set for 25 April — but on 6 April, the agency cancelled the funding calls.
“This is really sizeable and critical funding for green chemistry. To cancel the programme less than three weeks from the due date for full proposals is shocking,” says James Hutchison, who heads a laboratory on green nanoscience at the University of Oregon in Eugene. “What new happened in the last few weeks, or months, that we didn’t know about over the year this was being planned?” he adds.
Similar shock and concern was expressed by Eric Beckman, a chemical engineer at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania. He told Environmental Health News, which first reported the cancellation on 10 April, that he’d never seen a government agency pull the plug on a request for proposals so close to its deadline.
Rumours quickly flew around, with researchers from both inside and outside the EPA wondering whether internal budget frictions at the cash-strapped agency had nixed the programme’s funding — or whether external industry pressures were somehow responsible. Notably, Paul Anastas, a pioneer of green chemistry, had left his position as the EPA’s research head and chief science adviser on 18 February, just two months before the cancellation. Anastas told Nature he was surprised to hear the news too.
With scientists preparing a letter to ask EPA head Lisa Jackson what was going on, the agency tweeted a reassuring message from its acting research head Lek Kadeli on 11 April: “ ‘We will be reissuing the #greenchemistry RFAs in Summer 2012’ says EPA’s Kadeli” . It also explained, bafflingly: “Given the new & emerging research areas in the RFAs we determined it was necessary to further explore these research areas” — although the agency had spent a year discussing the area before issuing its funding calls. See also updated explanation: “The two solicitations were cancelled in order to allow for a review to ensure new and emerging research is accurately reflected and incorporated into the request for applications. On rare occasions, solicitations are cancelled or revised when necessary to ensure the integrity of our grants process.”
The announcements left chemists hopeful but uncertain. “I think the question of what form they will take is still a concern and, until the RFA is posted, I’ll be nervous that the community will lose this important source of funds,” says Hutchison.
In its original form, the programme invited two centres, on ‘Material Life Safety’, to study the toxicity of compounds over their entire life-cycle, from their creation and use through to their recycling or disposal. The other two, on ‘Sustainable Molecular Design’, would attempt to design inherently safer chemicals from the get-go, by working out the key properties (such as molecular structure) that lead to various types of toxicity.
Most green chemistry centres in the United States scrape together their funding from a hodgepodge of private donors (concerned about the environmental effects of toxic chemicals), industry sponsors (wanting to reduce the inefficiencies and hazards in chemicals manufacture), and chemistry grants to individuals such as those supplied by the National Science Foundation (NSF). So the prospect of an EPA programme dedicated to establishing centres in the subject is significant. And whereas the NSF funding tends to focus on science alone, the EPA centres were also distinctive because they put more focus on the social framework for the chemistry, says Hutchison — how it relates to wider issues of sustainability, and impacts on human health and the environment, for example.
As an example, Terry Collins, a chemist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and 11 other scientists in areas ranging from water-purification experts to ecotoxicologists, are bidding for a centre to work out chemical properties that lead to endocrine disruption and to design chemicals that avoid these problems. (Endocrine disrupters affect the hormonal system; the controversial bisphenol A is one example of such a chemical.) “It’s critical that the new RFAs will properly support the national development of green chemistry,” he writes in a letter sent to EPA head Lisa Jackson today.