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Trump proposes big reductions for science agencies

16 March 2017

Although lacking in details, Trump’s “skinny budget” is clearly bad news for energy research.

Yucca Mountain
Staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission visit the proposed nuclear waste repository site at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. The Trump administration’s budget proposal reinvigorates the project, which had been killed by President Obama. Credit: NRC

President Trump’s budget proposal for the year beginning 1 October would slash funding for the Department of Energy’s basic research programs while adding 11% to the agency’s nuclear weapons activities. It would cut the Environmental Protection Agency by nearly one-third from its current-year level, including a 48% reduction to the agency’s R&D program.

Trump’s budget priorities, which were outlined in a 62-page document released on 16 March, propose a 17%, or $900 million, reduction to DOE’s Office of Science, which is the largest source of funding for basic research in the physical sciences. Although those cuts are not broken down further, published reports have suggested that the Basic Energy Sciences, Nuclear Physics, and Advanced Scientific Computing Research offices would be pared down, while the Biological and Environmental Research program office would be targeted for elimination.

Administration officials have promised to provide a detailed budget proposal to Congress in May. The president’s proposed reductions in nondefense R&D programs will likely face opposition from both parties. In particular, lawmakers will likely object to the proposed 18%, or $5.8 billion, cut to the National Institutes of Health, which has enjoyed broad bipartisan support over the years. Although House and Senate appropriators must work within yet-to-be-determined spending caps, they are the ones who determine how to distribute funding—and they will have their own ideas about where to make any reductions.  

About $2 billion would be sliced from DOE’s applied research programs in energy efficiency and renewable energy, fossil energy, nuclear energy, and electricity delivery and energy reliability. The Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, which currently provides $291 million in development funding for high-risk clean-energy technologies, would be terminated, as would loan guarantees for innovative energy and advanced vehicle manufacturing technologies. The Yucca Mountain, Nevada, high-level nuclear waste repository program, which was axed by President Barack Obama, would be resurrected with $120 million in funding to resume licensing efforts.

The R&D spending cuts are part of the $54 billion in nondefense discretionary spending needed to pay for a corresponding boost in defense spending. The increase includes $1.4 billion to accelerate warhead life extension programs and upgrade infrastructure at DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA). The budget “demonstrates the Administration’s strong support for the United States’ nuclear security enterprise and ensures that we have a nuclear force that is second to none,” according to the document. The NNSA supplement, and the $52 billion increase proposed for the Department of Defense, would require repeal of the budget caps on defense spending that were imposed by the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013.

Agency President’s budget* Current levels* Change* (%)
Energy 28.0 29.7 –1.7 (–6%)
  National Nuclear Security Administration 13.9 12.5 +1.4 (+11%)
  Office of Science 4.4 5.3 –0.9 (–17%)
NASA 19.1 19.2 –0.1 (–1%)
  Earth science program 1.8 1.9 –0.1 (–5%)
Environmental Protection Agency 5.7 8.2 –2.5 (–31%)
Health and Human Services 65.1 77.7 –12.6 (–16%)
  National Institutes of Health 25.9 31.7 –5.8 (–18%)
Education 59.0 68.2 –9.2 (–13%)
* in billions of dollars

Of all the nondefense agencies that are listed in the so-called skinny budget, NASA fares the best, with only a 1% proposed cut in spending. Acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot said the proposed $19.1 billion for fiscal year 2018 “will enable us to effectively execute our core mission for the nation, even during these times of fiscal constraint.” Funding for the agency’s science programs is stable, he said in the statement. But some missions in development, including the Asteroid Redirect Mission scheduled for a 2020 launch, would be canceled.

NASA’s Earth science program would be funded at $1.8 billion, a $100 million cut. Three Earth-observing missions—Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem; Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3; and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder—would be terminated. In addition, the Earth-viewing instruments of the Deep Space Climate Observatory would be shut off, but its solar-weather monitoring functions would remain in operation. Grants for Earth science research also would be reduced. “We’re not spending money on that [climate change] anymore,” White House budget director Mick Mulvaney said in a press briefing. “We consider that to be a waste of your money.”

The Department of Commerce would be cut 16%, or $1.5 billion, from current levels. Changes include scrapping National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration plans for future polar-orbiting satellites and eliminating $250 million in grants and programs for coastal and marine management, research, and education.

NSF, which receives about $7.5 billion annually in federal funding, is not mentioned at all in the skinny budget. The proposal delineates spending only for cabinet-level departments and other “major agencies.”

Reaction from science organizations was swift and negative. The proposal “would cripple the science and technology enterprise through short-sighted cuts to discovery science programs and critical mission agencies alike,” said Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in a statement. “We encourage Congress to act in the nation’s best interest and support sustainable funding for federal R&D.”

“A cut of such magnitude would have serious repercussions on medical research, jobs and the economy,” said Lizbet Boroughs, president of United for Medical Research, in a statement. “It would stymie major progress toward treatment and cures of diseases, and be felt by all Americans.”

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