The 2019 Science Budget Backs Off Some Cuts, Not Others

The new White House science budget is more generous than last year's historically difficult proposal, but still targets several familiar programs for cuts or elimination.

A funny thing happened on the way to the FY 2019 White House budget, which was released by the Trump Administration today: Congress adopted a sweeping deal to substantially increase the spending caps for the 2019 fiscal year.

Originally, the Administration had planned a repeat performance of last year's budget, according to documents posted to the White House Office of Management and Budget web site. This would have included a cut of more than 20 percent for basic science, with massive reductions to NIH and the National Science Foundation among other agencies. And the Administration also again planned on targeting environmental science programs, applied technology research within the Department of Energy, and other such programs.

But with the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 last week, Congress demonstrated (and not for the first time) an unwillingness to take the budget to places preferred by the Administration. Congress added $68 billion to the nondefense discretionary cap in FY 2019, whereas the Administration had intended to cut nondefense spending by $65 billion, according to their official documents.

This left an enormous gap of $132 billion between what the law called for, and the White House was planning on calling for. In response to events, the White House then made a last-minute decision to add $75 billion back into their budget, to be distributed in the fashion outlined in this document. From a science and technology perspective, those changes primarily directed spending back into the budgets for a few big basic science agencies: NIH, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy's Office of Science, allowing them to stay closer to flat.

As a result, the budgets for those agencies look far different in this year's request compared to last year's request (see graph, which provides a side-by-side comparison of FY 2019 and FY 2018, using FY 2017 as a baseline for comparison for both years). Note that the NIH increase is accounted for by additional opioids funding and (unlikely) consolidation of NIH with the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the National Institute on Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research (NIDILRR); many individual NIH institutes would see funding reductions under the Administration's plan.

Details on many of these agencies are still emerging, and may not be fully available for some time.

On the other hand, as can be seen, several R&D areas outside the basic research realm would again be targeted for steep cuts, and many of these are copies of proposals from last year's budget. Examples include:

Congress appears to be on the verge of rebuffing many of these proposals for FY 2018, though final decisions on appropriations are yet to be determined.

While the FY 2019 White House budget is ultimately a bit friendlier for many research programs, the White House could actually have gone further. Following last week's budget deal, the cap for FY 2019 stands at $597 billion — but the White House is only now recommending Congress spend $540 billion (see graph at right). That means the Administration could have chipped in some extra funding to either roll back some of the reductions pictured above or increase investment in apparent priorities like high-performance computing, cybersecurity, agricultural biotechnology, or other fields. Instead, the White House would rather see that funding go uncommitted and unspent.

Of course, Congress should have no such qualms spending the money it has given itself. But before it can address FY 2019 spending, it must first finalize FY 2018 spending. That should happen in the coming weeks. Those negotiations may provide some clues into what they'll do on 2019.

See also: coverage from ScienceInsider