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Commentary: Trump, Congress, and science budgets

18 March 2019

Federal R&D funding levels in coming years will be determined by lawmakers’ broader spending decisions.

US Capitol
A view of the US Capitol in 2013. Credit: Patrick Thibodeau, CC BY 2.0

For all the hand-wringing of the scientific community over the first look at President Trump’s 2020 budget request, it’s well worth recalling the time-worn cliché: The president proposes, the Congress disposes. This year the big question regarding science and technology funding isn’t whether Congress will impose Trump’s proposed double-digit-percentage cuts, but rather whether it will actually stick to spending limits it imposed on itself eight years ago.

With few exceptions, lawmakers have steadily increased funding levels for R&D, whether military or civilian. The pattern holds no matter which party controls the White House or Congress. And for the past two years, it held despite the Trump administration’s efforts to dramatically scale back nondefense R&D programs.

As Matt Hourihan and David Parkes point out in a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, R&D’s share of total federal discretionary spending—that part of the budget that excludes mandatory programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—has been remarkably consistent at 11–13% ever since the race to the Moon ended.

As it stands today, though, the funding outlook for the fiscal year that begins on 1 October is bleak. Since passage of the bipartisan Budget Control Act of 2011, discretionary programs have been capped at funding levels that were set to decline annually. Lawmakers have adjusted those limits upward three times since then, most recently last year, when $165 billion was added for defense spending and $131 billion for nondefense. With the added funding, R&D budgets rose to record highs during fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Barring further congressional modifications, discretionary spending limits are scheduled to drop 10%, or $126 billion, in the next fiscal year, from their current levels of $1.3 trillion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. Since additions to the caps have been divided roughly equally between defense and nondefense, it should follow that nondefense programs—which fund most basic research—could see a $63 billion reduction in FY 2020. At a 27 February Budget Committee hearing, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), perhaps optimistically, forecast the nondefense discretionary reduction would be $55 billion.

FY 19 actual and FY 20 proposed
President Trump is proposing substantial cuts (yellow) to many government science programs. But as the blue bars show, Congress has a track record of maintaining or increasing funding. Credit: FYI

Although the unchecked growth of mandatory programs is driving increasing annual deficits that will approach $1 trillion next year, neither the White House nor lawmakers can cut spending there without making major changes to the Social Security or Medicare benefits. Could this be the year they decide to make real cuts on the discretionary side? With the GOP and Democrats now sharing control of the legislative branch, don’t bet on it. When it comes to making tough spending choices, as Sen. John Kennedy (R-LA) put it at the February hearing, “Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die to get there.”

Wherever the topline numbers wind up this year, appropriations committees will be left to determine how to divvy up the money among the myriad programs they fund. R&D programs are scattered throughout all but a few of the 12 annual bills that cover federal operations.

Remarkably, appropriators carry out their role mostly without the partisan rancor that has become the rule. Using the previous year’s bills as starting points, they dampen the drastic swings in year-to-year funding floated by the White House. For example, for the third year in a row Trump is proposing to gut the Department of Energy’s energy efficiency and renewable energy programs—from $2.4 billion this year to $343 million next—and to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, a small but outsized DOE program that supports high-risk, high-impact, clean-energy research. That’s extremely unlikely to happen. Not only has Congress rejected those plans from Trump in the past, but in FY 2019, both programs received modest increases. The Republican-controlled Congress during Trump’s first two years in office even rejected the president’s proposals to decimate NOAA’s science and climate programs and to defund multiple NASA climate-related missions.

Members of Congress generally don’t meddle in the fine details of agency research programs. Given its basic-research mission, NSF is considered especially sacrosanct. Every few years, a few members will take potshots at the agency, cherry-picking a few grants with odd-sounding titles to assert as waste, but that rarely leads to funding changes. Most recently, former representative Lamar Smith (R-TX) who chaired the Science, Space, and Technology Committee until this year, focused his ire on NSF’s behavioral and social sciences grants. Former representative Mark Sanford (R-SC) got called out by members of his own party in 1998 when he and a few other House members unsuccessfully sought to cut the NSF budget by 10%. In making his case, Sanford decried NSF research grants on Monte Carlo methods and asynchronous transfer mode (ATM), a switching technique used on the internet; Sanford believed researchers were exploring gambling and automated teller machines.

ITER construction
The first metal piece of the ITER fusion reactor tokamak is lowered into its shielding in November 2018. Numerous times Congress has threatened to pull US funding from the project but has yet to do so. Credit: ITER

Once initiated, new R&D programs take on a life of their own. It’s rare for Congress to kill a physical sciences program outright. A major exception was cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) in 1993. But that process took three years, as Senate supporters twice beat back House attempts to terminate the project. Members will threaten to wield the axe: The International Space Station survived an attempt on its life, having contended with the SSC at the time for the “wasteful spending” crown. The space station won out in part because, unlike the case with the SSC, members understood what it does.

For three years, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the chair and ranking member, respectively, of the DOE-funding appropriations subcommittee, threatened to zero out US contributions to ITER, the international fusion demonstration device being built in France. Each time, former House Appropriations chair Rodney Frelinghuysen, a long-time friend of fusion, insisted it be restored. The senators eventually dropped their opposition, saying their newfound support was due to improved project management.

With Democrats now in control of the House, another budget cliché is especially true, one heard each year when a budget proposal is sent to Capitol Hill: dead on arrival. For R&D spending, the real numbers will be determined in the budget and appropriations committees. Look for a long and tortuous process.

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