As a state on the Atlantic seaboard with low elevation, Delaware is especially concerned with coastal issues, and those issues are the focal point of the Delaware Sea Grant program at the University of Delaware.
But Delaware Sea Grant and 32 other sea grant programs in the U.S. face an uncertain future under President Trump’s recent budget proposal. That cuts $250 million in funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grants, including the entire sea grant program.
Delaware Public Media’s Katie Peikes explains what that would mean in the First State.
Jonathan Cohen is carefully loading microscopic plastic fragments collected in Delaware Bay near the Cherry Island Landfill onto a glass slide. He then places the slide on a scanner to get a closer look at what he’s collected.
He is trying to understand how microplastics have been dispersed throughout the bay and how they affect things like fish that eat them.
“The work we’re doing now is hopefully gonna lead to that, to stronger collaborations with fishermen to understand how microplastics could be affecting fisheries that they’re depending on,” Cohen said. “We certainly don’t want a situation where if microplastics do become a larger issue in crab fisheries or oyster fisheries, for the fishermen to be caught blindly by that.”
Cohen, who is a marine bioscience professor, works with three graduate students and a technician. Their project has received one year of funding through the Delaware Sea Grant.
But their work would be largely impossible if President Trump’s proposed cuts to the sea grant program are enacted. Cohen and his students’ research on microplastics would stop and they’d shift their focus to other projects that could find funding elsewhere.
“It’s disconcerting,” Cohen said. “There’s a lot of important questions that scientists are addressing and there’s a lot of interesting and important questions that the state has raised, that organizations like Sea Grant can be a meaningful conduit of connecting the state to universities.”
While Cohen can only wait to see how the budget shakes out, the University of Delaware is taking a more proactive approach.
Mohsen Badiey is the acting dean of UD’s College of Earth, Ocean and Environment, home to Delaware Sea Grant. He is meeting with Sea Grant staff to assess the possible impact of the proposed cuts here.
“There’s a sense of anxiety among all the programs that what impact these cuts would have in their local communities and to the research that they have been providing all these years,” Badiey said.
In 2016, Delaware Sea Grant distributed $1.1 million in federal money to support 19 research projects. It also gave $200,000 to extension and education programs and $82,000 to community outreach.
The money supported nine graduate students and one fellow.
If that funding disappears and projects like Cohen’s go away, Badiey said Delaware’s coast could see dramatic changes without the resources to explain them.
“In times that the environment is changing and we need to adapt to that change, we need to be able to do research and be proactive with that kind of change so we can adapt and manage that adaptation rather than let environment do things we can’t control,” Badiey said.
Scientists are looking to Congress to intercede and make changes - producing a final budget much different from the Trump Administration's blueprint. With that in mind, Delaware Sea Grant’s Director of Environmental Public Education Mark Jolly-Van Bodegraven is trying to be optimistic.
“The National Sea Grant and all the state Sea Grant programs feel we can make a case to the public and congressional delegation that what we do is cost effective, makes a real impact locally,” Jolly-Van Bodegraven said.
As they wait to see what happens with the budget, Cohen said he and his students will plug away at their research on microplastics.
“There’s not much we can do but continue our work,” Cohen said. “We have funding on projects and we have obligations on those projects and those projects are leading to interesting findings and that’s what we’re trained to do.”