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Trump budget proposal includes familiar science cuts

14 February 2020

The White House aims to sharply reduce support for nondefense R&D while directing funds toward “Industries of the Future.”

ARPA–E summit 2018.
Attendees gather at the ARPA–E Energy Innovation Summit near Washington, DC, in 2018. The Trump administration is again calling for the closure of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, a request that Congress has ignored in the past. Credit: US Department of Energy

The fiscal year 2021 budget request that President Trump released on 10 February seeks broad reductions in nondefense spending, including major cuts to R&D programs that echo cuts in his three previous budget proposals. According to summary R&D figures included in the budget, federal support for basic research would drop by 6% to $41 billion, and funding for applied research would drop by 12% to $39 billion. As before, cuts are aimed disproportionately at energy R&D and environmental research programs.

To date, lawmakers in Congress have repeatedly rejected Trump’s proposed cuts and instead increased R&D budgets at many agencies, in some cases to historically high levels. There are, moreover, several bills pending in Congress or in the works that suggest there is a significant bipartisan appetite for even larger boosts to R&D in the years ahead.

Nonetheless, the spending restrictions that Congress imposed on itself through the Budget Control Act of 2011 will remain in place for one more fiscal year. Because next year’s caps leave little room for additional spending, congressional appropriators may have to weigh support for established programs against increases proposed for areas such as nuclear stockpile stewardship and the Artemis lunar exploration program. Trump’s budget also proposes a major two-year ramp-up in nondefense spending on quantum information science (QIS) and artificial intelligence (AI), in accord with the administration’s prioritization of “Industries of the Future.”

Here are highlights of the proposed budget as it relates to selected science agencies.

Department of Energy

In its budget request, DOE continues the administration’s pattern of seeking large increases to support ongoing modernization of the nuclear weapons enterprise while calling for steep cuts to basic and applied energy R&D programs and for the closure of the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy.

Office of Science. Funding for the office would drop by 17% to $5.8 billion under the proposal. The White House proposes that the office increase spending on QIS from its current level of about $195 million to $237 million. The funds would support DOE’s creation of new QIS research centers and work on the administration’s newly announced goal of building out a “quantum internet.” Funding for AI would likewise increase, from $71 million to $125 million. The proposed budget also supports limited work on Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Electron-Ion Collider, the Cosmic Microwave Background–Stage 4 experiment, and a new facility at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory that would maintain and repair superconductor accelerator components.

RHIC ring at Brookhaven National Laboratory.
The Department of Energy budget proposal supports the construction of the Electron-Ion Collider, which will be built as a modification of Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider. Credit: Brookhaven National Laboratory

National Nuclear Security Administration. The budget for NNSA would surge by 18% to $19.8 billion in support of warhead life-extension activities and associated infrastructure revitalization efforts. The administration proposes to increase the budget for weapons-related R&D activities by 9% to $2.8 billion, and to restructure it under a new Stockpile Research, Technology, and Engineering program. Two major focus areas for the program are continued development of the Enhanced Capabilities for Subcritical Experiments project and preparation for the installation of NNSA’s first exascale computing system at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Applied Energy Offices. The budget for DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is once again facing a dramatic cut, in this case to $720 million, just one-fourth of its current level of $2.85 billion. The Office of Nuclear Energy’s budget would decrease by 21% to $1.2 billion, with some of its programs, including the new Advanced Reactor Demonstration program, in line for steep cuts. In contrast, funding for the Versatile Test Reactor, identified as one of the department’s “highest priorities,” would ramp up from $65 million to $295 million. The Office of Fossil Energy’s R&D budget would drop by just 3% to $731 million, but its focus would shift markedly toward electricity generation technologies and away from carbon capture and sequestration. DOE also requests funds for a new, crosscutting Critical Minerals Initiative and its recently announced Energy Storage Grand Challenge, which would integrate existing energy storage R&D efforts across the agency.


The administration’s budget for NSF seeks a 6% overall cut to the agency, rolling it back to just under $7.8 billion. Of the agency’s six disciplinary research directorates, only the one dedicated to computing would grow, due to the agency’s prioritization of AI research. The Education and Human Resources account would remain about level at $931 million, within which funding for research traineeships would nearly double to $62 million in support of AI workforce development. The budget also provides full funding for three major facility projects already underway: the Vera C. Rubin Observatory, Large Hadron Collider upgrades, and the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science project.

Quantum information science summit.
From left: OSTP assistant director for quantum information science Jake Taylor, NSF director France Córdova, DOE under secretary for science Paul Dabbar, NIST director Walter Copan, and under secretary of defense for research and engineering Mike Griffin discuss quantum information science at a White House summit in 2018. The Trump administration’s new budget proposal prioritizes quantum research across multiple agencies. Credit: White House OSTP


Echoing last year’s proposal, the budget request for NIST has a top-line cut of 29% to $738 million, halves facility construction funding to $60 million, and eliminates the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program. The main research account would drop by 14% to $652 million; the budget request states that the decrease would lead to the elimination of 391 staff positions, about 350 of which would be from NIST’s scientific workforce. Amid the cuts to lab programs, the administration prioritizes funding for “Measurement Tools and Testbeds to Power the Industries of the Future,” which would double to $51 million, with $25 million going toward AI research.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The complete budget request documentation for NOAA is still “under review,” according to the summary budget for its parent department, but the top-line program numbers available from the White House Office of Management and Budget show cuts across all the agency’s major offices. The hardest hit would be the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, which would see its budget drop by 40% to $353 million. The administration notes that it is prioritizing the agency’s ocean mapping efforts, consistent with a November 2019 executive order on the topic. It also repeats past proposals to eliminate the Sea Grant program and education grants.


NASA’s SOFIA aircraft, seen here over the Sierra Nevada, is targeted for cancellation in the president’s budget proposal. Credit: NASA/Jim Ross

NASA’s budget would climb by 12% to $25.2 billion, with the development of crewed lunar landers for the agency’s Artemis program absorbing the increase. Artemis’s funding requirements are expected to escalate further over the next two years as NASA seeks to achieve its goal of returning astronauts to the Moon in 2024. Though funding for lunar science activities would increase from about $300 million to $452 million to support the program, the total budget for the Science Mission Directorate would decline by 12% to $6.3 billion. The directorate’s flagship Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope is targeted for cancellation for the third straight year and is now joined on the chopping block by the airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), which has an annual operating budget of more than $80 million. Justifying SOFIA’s discontinuation, NASA states it “has not delivered high quality data products or science on par with other large science missions.”

Department of Defense

Under the Defense Department’s proposed budget, the rapid multiyear funding increase for its Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) activities would level off at almost $108 billion. Within that, the new Space Force would have an inaugural RDT&E budget of $10.3 billion, comprising line items transferred from other accounts. As in prior years, DOD is prioritizing prototyping and testing advanced technologies. This year’s proposal emphasizes what it calls “Advanced Capabilities Enablers,” which includes $3.2 billion for hypersonics, $1.5 billion for microelectronics and 5G telecommunications, $1.7 billion for autonomous systems, and $841 million for AI R&D.

US Geological Survey

The budget request for USGS has a 24% cut to $971 million and again proposes to restructure five of the agency’s seven mission areas. The Land Resources and Environmental Health mission areas would be subsumed within other mission areas, and the Ecosystems, Water Resources, and Core Science Systems mission areas would be realigned. The Natural Hazards and the Energy and Mineral Resources mission areas would be unaffected. The budget also proposes to create a chief scientist position within the office of the USGS director to liaise with other federal agencies and offer advice on research and applications that cross agency mission areas.

National Institutes of Health

The administration requests $38.7 billion for NIH, a 7% cut that would roll back the $2.6 billion increase the agency just received for this fiscal year. NIH estimates the tightened top line would result in the number of competing extramural research grants awarded dropping by about 1900 and the anticipated grant success rate falling from 20% to 16.5%. The budget includes increases in some targeted areas, such as a $100 million boost to base funding for the Buildings and Facilities account to address NIH’s significant maintenance backlog.

Department of Education

Under the Department of Education’s budget request, many major grant programs would be consolidated into a single Elementary and Secondary Education for the Disadvantaged Block Grant program. The new program would subsume the Education Innovation and Research program and three formula grant programs that states and school districts use to support a variety of STEM and non-STEM education activities. The budget also includes a 59% increase for the Career and Technical Education (CTE) grant program to $2.1 billion, with $90 million allocated to “support the development and implementation of innovative, evidence-based, high-quality CTE programs in STEM, including computer science.” The administration also requests $150 million to launch an initiative that supports STEM education activities at Minority Serving Institutions located in Opportunity Zones.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from an 11 February post on FYI, which reports on federal science policy with a focus on the physical sciences. Both FYI and Physics Today are published by the American Institute of Physics.

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