Trump’s proposed 2018 budget takes an ax to science research funding

Some programs see increases, but most face sharp cuts

budget document

BUDGET BLUEPRINT  The Trump administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018 calls for sharp cuts to many federal science agencies and programs. Research on climate and clean energy would be especially hammered.

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Tornadoes in the southeast, Earth’s magnetic field and obesity might not seem to have much in common. Well, now they do.

Under President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal, federal research spending into all three areas — and many others — would decline abruptly. The president delivered his budget request to Congress on May 23, presenting the sharpest picture yet of his administration’s priorities for federal science spending. Some science and technology programs within agencies would see their funds increase, but the administration recommends extensive cuts to basic research overall. The request greatly expands on the “skinny budget” the administration released in March (SN: 4/15/17, p. 15).  

Total federal research spending would be slashed by about 17 percent, Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a conference call with reporters. “If the White House budget plan were to become law, it would devastate America’s science and technology enterprise.” 

For many science agencies and programs, the outlook appears stark. Some examples:

  • The National Science Foundation, which funds research in all fields of science and engineering, would face an 11 percent cut.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey’s budget would be cut by 15 percent.
  • The National Institute of Standards and Technology, where research includes cybersecurity and nanotechnology, would face a 23 percent cut.
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s primary research arm, which investigates weather, climate and ocean resources, would be cut 32 percent.
  • The Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Science & Technology would be cut by 37 percent.
  • The budget proposes a 16 percent cut for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences.
  • The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would take a 17 percent cut.
  • Food and Drug Administration funding (not including revenue from user fees) would be cut by 30 percent.
  • The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service would fall 22 percent.
  • And, as expected, the National Institutes of Health’s budget would be slashed 22 percent.

Those numbers don’t mean much just yet — they are just a starting point for a long and winding route through the political process. But the details do provide more information about what programs and areas of research could be in trouble.

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NSF’s grant programs, for example, would lose $776 million, dropping the overall budget from $7.5 billion to $6.65 billion. As a result, the agency estimates that in fiscal year 2018, the proposed funds would support about 8,000 new research grant awards, about 800 fewer than in 2016. Among the NSF-funded programs facing potentially severe reductions are clean energy research and development and the Ocean Observatories Initiative, an array of marine and seismic sensors scattered across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that is  expected to provide some of the most detailed ocean measurements to date (SN: 10/19/13, p. 22). The project would see its NSF funding slashed by 44 percent.

A bright spot: The request leaves funding flat for LIGO, which discovered gravitational waves in 2016 (SN: 3/5/16, p. 6). Planned, continued upgrades to the project’s laser interferometer systems are still on, NSF director France Córdova said May 23 at a budget presentation at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va. NSF has invested about $1.1 billion in the project. “It was the biggest investment NSF has made to date, and it was a big risk,” Córdova said.

Many in the scientific community say the proposed cuts would significantly undermine the nation’s global leadership role in advancing science. And they doubt the administration’s argument that the private sector would make the necessary investments in basic science research.

“Candidly, shareholders are not interested in funding research, which tends to be costly, very long-term and very risky,” said retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine during the AAAS conference call. “Research is a public good.… The rewards tend to go to the public as a whole, and therefore research really warrants government support.”

Funding for DOE’s energy programs, including research into efficiency and renewable energy, would fall about 60 percent. One of those programs, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, would be eliminated. The administration defends phasing out the roughly $300 million ARPA-E, which funds research on risky but promising energy technologies, by saying the private sector is “better positioned” to finance such research.

Within the DOE Office of Science, the biological and environmental research program, which studies climate modeling among other things, faces the steepest cut — 43 percent, a drop from $612 million to $349 million. High-energy physics research would see an 18 percent reduction, but the program for advanced scientific computing would get an 11 percent bump.

Environmental research would suffer at NOAA, with the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research facing sweeping cuts. Funding for climate research would drop 19 percent, weather and air chemistry research 25 percent and ocean, coastal and Great Lakes research by 49 percent. Programs potentially shuttered include:

  • Air Resources Laboratory, which researches air chemistry, mercury deposition and the movement of harmful materials through the atmosphere.
  • VORTEX-Southeast, a tornado detection and warning program for the southeastern United States.
  • The Marine Mammal Commission, an independent agency formed in 1972 to help protect marine animals and their habitats.

At USGS, the roughly $1.9 million geomagnetism program would be zeroed out. It monitors changes in Earth’s magnetic field, providing data that help NOAA and the U.S. Air Force track magnetic storms due to solar activity. Such storms can disrupt radio communication, GPS systems and, if severe enough, the electric power grid. The agency’s Climate and Land Use Change program, renamed the Land Resources program, would see a 24 percent cut. Most of the funding for a carbon sequestration research program, about $8 million, would be eliminated, with the rest, about $1.5 million, being redirected to the energy and minerals program. That division would see about a 2 percent increase overall.

Health programs and biomedical research would face big challenges under Trump’s budget. At CDC, $1.2 billion would be slashed from the agency’s overall budget. The request proposes cutting $163 million from the agency’s chronic disease prevention programs, which aim to reduce incidence of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity. Prevention programs for domestic HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and tuberculosis face a $183 million decrease in funding.

NIH’s overall budget would fall from the enacted 2017 level of $34.6 billion to $26.9 billion. Some of the most striking cuts:

  • National Cancer Institute — $1.2 billion
  • National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute — $672 million.
  • National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases — $1.1 billion.
  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases — $421 million.

Congress, however, recently boosted NIH funding — at least for fiscal year 2017 — providing an additional $2 billion over the next five months.

That’s an important reminder that many of the programs facing extensive reductions or elimination have allies on Capitol Hill, a potentially comforting thought for those alarmed by the president’s request. “We’re counting on Congress to, once again, say no to these recommendations,” Mary Woolley, president of the health and medical research advocacy group Research!America, said in the AAAS conference call.

Not all science agencies or programs are threatened. For instance, NASA’s planetary science division would see a funding bump. The final 2017 spending agreement, which Congress recently passed, had already increased the division’s budget from $1.63 billion to $1.85 billion. In Trump’s proposal, that number is nudged even higher, to $1.93 billion. As expected, the administration supports a flyby mission to Europa, one of Jupiter’s moons. The president has requested $425 million for the project, a 55 percent increase from the 2017 enacted level of $275 million.

“We’re pleased by our top-line number of $19.1 billion, which reflects the president’s confidence in our direction and the importance of everything we’ve been achieving,” said NASA acting administrator Robert Lightfoot.

But the agency would lose about 9 percent of its earth science budget, slightly more than expected. Grants for earth science research would be cut, and NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, which Congress directed the space agency to form in 2010, would be axed. Five space-based earth science projects would also be eliminated. Those projects are meant, in part, to provide data to help understand various aspects of Earth’s climate and how it is changing.

Trump’s budget proposal will not get passed by Congress unchanged. Still, the administration’s lack of support for basic federal research overall has alarmed many scientists and their supporters.  

“Science research has been the source of improvements in public health, in our energy, in our quality of life, in our agriculture and ability to feed ourselves and the world,” said Holt. “What we see is not just a reduction in government programs. What we see is a failure to invest in America.”

Emily DeMarco is the deputy news editor. She has a bachelor's degree in English from Furman University and a master of environmental science and management from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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