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No relief for science and research in Trump budget

24 May 2017

The president’s detailed budget proposal seeks cuts in R&D as part of a plan to increase defense spending.

ITER magnetic coil
The first of the ITER fusion reactor’s 18 toroidal field coils is displayed at a ceremony on 18 May. President Trump’s budget proposal would cut US annual funding for the international project nearly in half. Credit: ITER

Despite Congress’s recent passage of a spending bill that kept steady or increased most spending on R&D, President Trump’s first full budget proposal released 23 May hewed closely to the deep cuts he had outlined in March. According to preliminary calculations by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), overall R&D in 2018 would fall 16.8% from its current-year level. Funding for basic research would decline 13%, from $33 billion in fiscal year 2016 to $29 billion in FY 2018.

The new budget blueprint includes NSF, which wasn’t mentioned in Trump’s March “skinny budget.” The foundation’s programs are slated for an 11%, or $819 million, reduction. The proposal calls for an 11% ($1.6 billion) cut in R&D at the Department of Energy. (All comparisons are made with FY 2016 levels. The omnibus appropriations act for FY 2017 was signed into law too late for consideration in preparing the budget.)

The biggest reduction at DOE would be in energy efficiency and renewable energy, where spending would plunge 70% ($1.4 billion) to $636 million. The Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, a small DOE unit that funds innovative early-stage clean-energy technologies, would be eliminated after paying out a last round of grants.

“This budget delivers on the promise to reprioritize spending in order to carry out DOE’s core functions efficiently and effectively while also being fiscally responsible and respectful to the American taxpayer,” energy secretary Rick Perry said in a statement. “It reflects the importance of strengthening our nuclear capabilities, and places an emphasis on early stage energy technology research and development.”

The Office of Science at DOE, the largest funder of basic research in the physical sciences, would be cut 16% ($874 million) to $4.5 billion. Basic energy sciences, the largest of the DOE Science divisions, would decline 16%. Fusion energy sciences would drop 28%, including a 45% cut in funding for ITER, the international fusion test reactor. The DOE budget includes $120 million to restart the process of preparing for a proposed high-level nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. President Barack Obama terminated the project soon after taking office.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, the DOE arm that oversees the nuclear weapons complex, would receive an 11% increase, including a 15% ($969 million) increase in R&D funding.

Other scientific agencies are subject to even more severe cuts. The National Institutes of Health faces a 17.4% ($5.6 billion) reduction, and the Environmental Protection Agency’s science and technology programs would be cut 47%.

Asked at a briefing about the proposed cuts to R&D, Office of Management and Budget director Mick Mulvaney limited his response to climate science. “What I think you saw happen during the previous administration was the pendulum went too far to one side, spending too much of your money on climate change, and not very efficiently,” he said. “We don’t get rid of it here. Do we target it? Sure. Do a lot of the EPA reductions aim at reducing the focus on climate science? Yes. Does it mean we are antiscience? Absolutely not. We are simply trying to get things back in order.”

Rush Holt, CEO of AAAS, said the budget plan “would devastate America’s science and technology enterprise and negatively affect our nation’s economy and public well-being.” But he pointed out to reporters that lawmakers, in rejecting Trump’s proposed cuts in FY 2017 appropriations, had shown “that they do not buy in to this harsh and abrupt approach to cutting science funding.”

Holt said it appeared that the budget had been assembled with limited input from the agencies. “It was put together on the basis of ideology and imaginary economics rather than hard facts about what research is productive,” he said. “Ironically, [the budget] depends on astounding economic growth even as it proposes to cut the source of that economic growth.” The proposal optimistically assumes that the US economy will grow at a rate of 3% annually over the next decade.

Mary Woolley, president of the NIH advocacy group Research!America, said the NIH cuts would eliminate about 90 000 jobs and 2000 grants. She and Norm Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, warned that the budget proposal will send a signal to young prospective scientists and engineers to look at other careers.

Reaction from appropriators was mixed. House Appropriations Committee chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) and his Senate counterpart Thad Cochran (R-MS) both issued neutral statements promising detailed reviews of the blueprint. Representative Nita Lowey (D-NY), the ranking appropriations minority member, called the document “a cruel and radical departure” from the omnibus appropriations act that had received bipartisan support three weeks earlier. Her Senate counterpart, Patrick Leahy (D-VT), called the document “unbalanced, needlessly provocative and appallingly shortsighted.”

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