Energy, Basic Science, Some Space Programs Face Big FY18 Budget Cuts

The Trump Administration Squeezes Energy Technology Programs, Basic Science at NSF, NASA Gets A Mixed Bag In Budget Request

See also: USDA, NIST, and NOAA in the FY 2018 Budget Request

As mentioned in yesterday’s quick summary, the Trump Administration’s full budget request is seeking historically large cutbacks in federal science and technology programs, particularly to basic and applied research (see table at right; updated on June 6 with additional agency data). White House budget data indicates both basic and applied research would be cut by at least 13 percent below estimates of R&D in the 2017 omnibus bill passed a few weeks ago.[1] These reductions would hit most agencies, including both civilian science and technology programs like the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Department of Energy (DOE), as well as basic and applied research activities in the Department of Defense (DOD). Research funding would drop to levels not seen since 2001.

Yesterday’s summary also noted that these research cuts – unprecedented in scale for a new administration – are facilitated by long-term cuts to the nondefense spending caps. As was pointed out, nondefense spending would drop by 29 percent over the next decade under the White House budget. This would take nondefense spending into uncharted territory, pushing it below 2 percent of U.S. GDP for the first time in at least half a century (see graph below).

With this ambitious an attempt at shrinking nondefense spending, the impacts on science agencies would be far and wide, should Congress be willing to go along with it. A closer look at the research and development budgets for major science agencies is below. This first edition covers DOE, NSF, and NASA. Future installments will look at the National Institutes of Health, and the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and Commerce, among others. The intent is to give a thumbnail sketch of what’s proposed for each agency.

Department of Energy (long funding table)

DOE presents a good distillation of the Administration’s general approach to science and technology: a particular skepticism of federal technology programs and hostility to climate research; a general interest in scaling back even fundamental science; and a desire to increase investment in defense-related activities.

Starting with basic research, the Office of Science (SC) budget would receive a 17.1 percent reduction from FY 2017 omnibus levels (see the table linked above, and the graph at right), returning its budget to pre-COMPETES 2006 levels (see funding by program below right). The sole program within SC to receive an increase is Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR), at 11.6 percent above omnibus levels. This is largely due to a 19.9 percent increase for ASCR’s exascale computing activities, while other program activities would be scaled back. Most research areas within Basic Energy Sciences (BES), including materials science, physics, and chemical science, appear slated for at least some reduction. The budget eliminates funding for BES’ two innovation hubs, on energy storage and artificial photosynthesis, and for EPSCoR. BES user facilities will also see a scaling back from omnibus funding levels. For instance, compared to omnibus funding, BES’ five synchrotron radiation light sources would see a 12.4 percent reduction; the Nanoscale Science Research Centers would see a 41.8 percent reduction.

Unsurprisingly given its past focus on climate, Biological and Environmental Research (BER) would receive the largest relative reduction of any SC program area, with its environmental research branch rebranded away from climate and newly named “Earth and Environmental Systems Sciences.” While biological sciences would be trimmed (including a 46.6 percent reduction for the Bioenergy Research Centers), the Administration proposes much sharper cuts for environmental science. That side of BER would drop from an overall budget of $314.7 million in FY 2016 to $123.6 million in FY 2018. In what may have been an unplanned twist, the Administration has proposed an increase for ITER, the troubled international project supported via Fusion Energy Sciences. The 26.0 percent increase, to $63 million in FY 2018, may have been locked in prior to the low appropriation for ITER in the recent omnibus. Non-ITER funding for domestic research activities would be reduced by 25.2 percent in total, with particular reductions for fundamental plasma research. Neither High Energy Physics nor Nuclear Physics were given much detail in the omnibus package, but both would be subject to general reductions below FY 2016 levels in multiple areas, as can be seen in the table linked above.

While these would be sizable cuts for the Office of Science, DOE’s applied technology programs would receive deeper cuts still (see chart at right), reflecting the Administration’s interest in tightening the scope of government’s role in science and technology, and relying instead on industry to bring new technologies to fruition. Perhaps the biggest decision is the proposed elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which funds high-risk technology projects (though ARPA-E has its supporters and did just receive a solid funding boost from Congress). The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) would also see severe reductions to its assorted programs, ranging from 55.4 percent (for hydrogen and fuel cells) to 82 percent (for geothermal). The budget would zero out EERE’s innovation hubs on advanced materials and desalination, the latter of which just received its first funding in the omnibus, and its manufacturing innovation institutes. The Fossil Energy R&D program would substantially scale back most activities, including carbon capture and storage pilot projects and R&D on advanced combustion systems, re-focusing exclusively on exploratory technology activities in hopes that industry will take on greater responsibility across the board. The Office of Nuclear Energy would similarly see a reduction in several activities, with its innovation hub on modeling and simulation zeroed out. R&D related to advanced reactor technology and fuel cycle sustainability, efficiency, and safety would be scaled back and shifted to earlier-stage technology. The office would, however, pursue a $10 million plan to build a new fast test reactor.

Lastly, the National Nuclear Security Administration – benefiting from the proposed 10 percent increase in defense spending overall in the request – would see a mix of increases for its research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) accounts. The primary accounts providing funding for the National Ignition, Z, and Omega facilities would see only modest changes, while exascale-related activities would increase in accord with DOE's prioritization of exascale.

National Science Foundation (long funding table)

The National Science Foundation (NSF) budget would decrease by a total $819 million or 11 percent below last year’s omnibus levels. This would result in 800 fewer new research grant awards than the 8,800 total for FY 2016, according to NSF figures. Funding rates would drop from 21 percent in FY 2016 to 19 percent in the upcoming fiscal year.

The Research & Related Activities (R&RA) account, made up of NSF’s core research programs across multiple disciplines, would see a cut of $672 million or 11.1 percent below FY 2017 enacted. The six research directorates within R&RA would see roughly equal percentage reductions of around 10 percent each (see funding table above); note that these comparisons are based on full-year continuing resolution figures for 2017. The large proposed reduction to NSF research comes after a year of flat funding in FY 2017, not accounting for inflation.

For FY 2018, NSF requests funding to continue construction on three research facilities projects: the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), as well as the Regional Class Research Vessel (RCRV) project; last year’s omnibus provided additional funding for construction of a third RCRV.

Elsewhere, the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR), which funds a wide array of STEM programs, would be reduced by $119 million or 13.6 percent below last year enacted, with a particularly sharp cut to graduate research fellowships. The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), which seeks to broaden the geographic distribution of NSF dollars, would also see an acute funding reduction of $60 million or 37.5 percent below the FY 2016 amount of $160 million.

NSF’s cross-foundation investments, including Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS), Risk and Resilience, and Understanding the Brain (UtB) – which includes contributions to the BRAIN Initiative – would fall below FY 2016 levels in accord with the overall NSF budget downsizing.

In historical context, the Trump Administration would bring NSF’s inflation-adjusted budget down to FY 2002 levels (see chart at right). This would eliminate the funding gains fueled by the America COMPETES Act, which set an ultimately-unrealized budget doubling goal for NSF in 2007.

NASA (long funding table)

NASA would see an overall reduction of 2.9 percent – much less severe compared to other agencies. The space agency has enjoyed recent funding gains, with a $1.3 billion increase in FY 2016 and a smaller but substantial boost in the recent omnibus.

Within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), the budget provides Planetary Science with a 4.5 percent increase, including a $150 million boost above FY 2017 omnibus funding, to $425 million total, for a planned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The FY 2018 proposal would bolster the Discovery missions, and continues Mars activities though at a funding level below the omnibus. It would also cut New Frontiers by 40 percent below the omnibus level. The Earth Science portfolio would decrease by 8.7 percent below last year’s enacted levels, somewhat larger than expected, with cuts below FY 2016 levels to core earth science research and computing systems; however the budget maintains support for Landsat 9 development. NASA’s Heliophysics Program would be flat-funded from FY 2017, whereas Astrophysics would see a total 8.9 percent increase to fund the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), among other missions. The President’s budget provides the full level of funding to keep the James Webb Space Telescope on schedule for a 2018 launch.

The Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, which both receive strong support in Congress, would be trimmed below last year’s enacted levels. The budget confirms plans to cancel the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), an Obama Administration priority, and instead directs efforts towards developing solar-electric propulsion capabilities. The Administration also offers no funding for RESTORE-L, which aims to demonstrate the servicing of a government satellite in low Earth orbit; RESTORE-L was funded at $130 million in the FY 2017 omnibus. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program would see a substantial funding reduction of $453 million or 38.2 percent below FY 2017 enacted.

NASA Aeronautics would decline by an overall 5.4 percent, but receive continued support for the New Aviation Horizons initiative, which is carrying out a series of experimental X-Plane demonstration activities. NASA’s SBIR and STTR programs within the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) would fall below FY 2016 levels. Finally, the President’s budget proposes the termination of NASA’s Office of Education, responsible for the Space Grant consortia and other STEM activities, requesting $37 million to wind down office activities.

[1] As explained in yesterday’s summary, the best comparison is between the FY 2018 request and funding levels enacted in the omnibus. However, because the omnibus was completed as late as it was, the Administration’s budget materials only compare their FY 2018 figures against a hypothetical full-year continuing resolution for 2017. AAAS is sticking with omnibus figures throughout our budget coverage wherever possible, including our own estimates of R&D in the omnibus, for a better comparison. Also note that the R&D figures may be revised somewhat in the coming weeks as additional information is gathered from the agencies.