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Watchdog: EPA Hosts Too Many Foreign Nationals In Certain Fellowships

Program run along with the National Academy of Sciences and nonprofits should make U.S. citizenship a requirement, IG says.

For more than a decade, the lion’s share of research grants and fellowships hosted at Environmental Protection Agency laboratories under cooperative agreements with outside agencies or nonprofits went to foreign nationals, a possible violation of rules directing such awards to U.S. citizens, a watchdog found.

During an 11-year period reviewed by the EPA’s inspector general, 107 out of 166 fellows hosted at EPA labs in one sample of cooperative agreements were either foreign nationals or people who were not citizens or permanent U.S. residents, said the report released on Thursday.

EPA’s support for STEM students doing research and professional development to obtain career-enhancing advanced degrees is intended to bolster its workforce, the IG noted. “When the EPA directly awards fellowships, it requires U.S. citizenship or permanent residency. However, the EPA does not specify citizenship requirements for fellowships careers,” so foreign nationals often win grants in programs arranged in cooperation with the National Academy of Sciences, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health. 

 “Cooperative agreements are used when substantial involvement is anticipated between the federal government and the recipient,” the IG noted. Both of the nonprofits require that recipients be U.S. citizens, but the National Academy does not.

“We believe the taxpayer dollars will be put to better use if the EPA’s cooperative agreements included the same citizenship requirements for fellowships,” auditors wrote, adding that some of the nonprofits’ reported expenses were inaccurate. “In the drawdown requests audited, two fellows were overpaid $11,965. Neither the applicable EPA grant specialists nor project officers received any financial documentation to explain why additional funds were requested. Consequently, the EPA was not aware of potential unallowable costs,” the IG reported.

The reason EPA allowed the looser NAS grants that benefit fellows, EPA staff said, is that they did not believe they “could establish citizenship criteria for spending federal funds awarded pursuant to cooperative agreements.” An EPA Office of General Counsel attorney indicated that the EPA is reluctant to tell grantees what to do and therefore must allow the grantees’ criteria.

The National Academy of Sciences said it follows whatever policy EPA determines.

The IG recommended that EPA’s Office of Grants and Debarment (within the Office of Administration and Resources Management) and the Office of Research and Development “stipulate in future applicable grants and cooperative agreements that fellowships can only be awarded to U.S. citizens or those holding a visa permitting permanent residence in the United States.”

Auditors also recommended that EPA better monitor expenses.

EPA managers, having successfully argued against changing the terms of current grants, agreed on actions for future grants and have implemented corrective actions due by Dec. 31.

In a separate development affecting EPA science policy, The New York Times on Thursday reported that the agency under President Trump’s appointee, acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler, plans to abolish its Office of the Science Advisor. That’s an officer who counsels the administrator on health and environmental regulations by working with staff agencywide.

A statement from the acting adviser, Jennifer Orme-Zavaleta, described the decision to dissolve the office as one that would “combine offices with similar functions” and “eliminate redundancies.”

Asked for comment by Government Executive, EPA spokesman John Konkus said the Times report’s “unnamed sources were wrong.”

The full statement from Orme-Zavaleta, the principal deputy assistant administrator for science, described a more complicated restructuring. “EPA’s Office of Research and Development career leadership developed a proposal to combine offices with similar functions in order to reduce redundancies in ORD operations," the statement said. "ORD has briefed the administrator on those plans and held a town hall in September to announce the result of their work and proposed plan to staff. One of the suggestions was combining the Office of Science Advisor with the Office of Science Policy, currently two separate offices within the ORD structure. The fact of the matter is that the Senate-confirmed assistant administrator for ORD has customarily served as the EPA Science Advisor, which will continue to be the case.”