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Goodbye Homeland Security, Hello Emergency Response: EPA Renames a Major Research Initiative

Between January 4, 2021 (left) and January 19, 2021 (right), EPA’s Homeland Security Research webpage began redirecting to a new webpage, Emergency Response Research.

Welcome! This post is part of the EDGI Website Monitoring Team’s “Change of the Week” blog series. The purpose of this series is to highlight interesting changes we have observed in the language used on, or access to, federal websites. We want to share these changes to encourage public engagement with and discussion of their significance, as well as understanding of the ephemeral nature of website information. This week’s change occurred between January 4 and 19, 2021 on the former Homeland Security Research landing page.

What happened: 

Sometime between January 4 and 19, 2021, the EPA began redirecting its Homeland Security Research webpage to a new webpage, Emergency Response Research. The new page largely resembles the previous page, with a couple of key differences. What had previously been called the Homeland Security Research Program is now described as “EPA’s emergency response and homeland security research,” without a proper noun program name. The section formerly titled “Homeland Security Research Areas” is now simply called “Research Areas.” The section titled “EPA’s Homeland Security Mission” was removed, and the former link to “Background” in that section now redirects to Emergency Response Research Background. An “Outreach” section was added, the “Homeland Security Research Webinar Series” was renamed to the “Emergency Response Research Webinar Series,” and there were changes to the sidebar information. 

Why we think it is interesting: 

This website change piqued our interest for two reasons: (1) the language change from “Homeland Security” to “Emergency Response” can substantially alter perceptions of the research, and (2) this change took place in the days before the Biden administration officially took the helm. 

There are very different connotations for “Homeland Security” versus “Emergency Response,” and the name change for this webpage demonstrates a rebranding effort by the EPA. There are virtually no substantive differences between the Homeland Security Research webpage and the new Emergency Response Research webpage, save the name change and removal of all but one mention of “homeland security” on the new webpage. The research and programmatic work conducted by EPA’s Office of Homeland Security has always centered around improving the EPA’s and the public’s ability to respond to a variety of types of emergencies—from drinking water shortages to natural disasters to chemical warfare—but the name “Homeland Security” evokes militaristic, and even xenophobic, images and expectations due to the origins of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and exacerbated by the inhumane policies of DHS under the Trump administration. The rebranding from “Homeland Security Research” to “Emergency Response Research” distances the work being conducted at the EPA from controversial immigration policies and practices. 

The Homeland Security Research webpage had existed since at least 2014, but the Emergency Response Research webpage appears to be a new webpage with a new URL (i.e. the webpage hadn’t previously been archived by the Internet Archive, and unlike the Homeland Security Research page wasn’t captured in the EPA’s January 19, 2017 website snapshot or the EPA website archive). There is still an EPA Office of Homeland Security and Homeland Security website, and the EPA was congressionally mandated to participate in terrorism-related preparedness and recovery planning and research by the Bioterrorism Act of 2002 and instructed to carry out more specific research relating to potential targets and types of terrorism through multiple Homeland Security Presidential Directives. However, the rebranding of the Research section—the largest investment EPA makes related to Homeland Security, according to the FY 2021 budget—could be a precursor to a more thorough re-envisioning of the Office, and at the very least indicates a shift in the research program’s external image curation. 

The fact that this change occurred in the days before President Biden took office raises questions about who called for the change and during what timeframe might we expect career civil servants to make website changes in anticipation of new political regimes. Did the leaders of this program anticipate a warmer reception under the Biden administration with this rebranding? Had they been wanting  to make this change for years, perhaps since meeting the research needs of the global pandemic, but instead used the umbrella of Homeland Security to safeguard their research budgets as long as necessary? EDGI observed a handful of website changes in the days and weeks before Trump took office that one might presume were civil servants’ attempts to help their programs fly under the radar. Perhaps the final lame duck days provide clues about internal agency adaptations and approaches to surviving and thriving under various political agendas.