First Trump Budget Proposes Massive Cuts to Several Science Agencies

With some exceptions, the Trump Administration is seeking major rollbacks across the science and technology enterprise - if Congress agrees to it.

The first Trump Administration budget day has finally arrived, but the wait for the full science and technology picture is only partially over: there are substantial details still missing from the Administration’s FY 2018 budget outline, released this morning. But the picture that does emerge so far is one of an Administration seeking to substantially scale back the size of the federal science and technology enterprise nearly across the board – in some cases, through agency-level cuts not seen in decades.

Several applied technology programs in energy and manufacturing would be subject to the chopping block – unsurprisingly so, given past proposals and longstanding partisan disagreements over the federal role in innovation. Climate research programs are also cut to varying degrees. But the budget goes well beyond these sources of controversy to attempt steep cuts in discovery science at the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, representing a clean break with what has been a fairly consistent bipartisan consensus on government's role in fundamental science (Figure 1).

Basic or applied, funding reductions for most nondefense agencies would dwarf the cuts levied by the initial round of sequestration in 2013 (see Figure 4 at bottom).

There are some noteworthy exceptions, however: both NASA and competitive agricultural research grants fare relatively well. And on the defense side, the National Nuclear Security Administration would also see a sizable funding boost.

Quite a bit of information – indeed, most of what typically makes up the substantive budget – is still missing. For starters, the information presented in the budget summary, dubbed the “skinny budget,” is rather cursory, with little more than a handful of bullet points for most science agencies. Far more detail will come in the full budget request, expected to arrive in late April or early May. Beyond this, there is scant attention paid to two major supporters of university research: the Department of Defense (DOD) science apparatus and the National Science Foundation (NSF). DOD's science and technology activities might be expected to fare fine in the end, given the Administration's focus on increasing defense spending. NSF's future is murkier: it receives no mention in the budget summary whatsoever.

OVERALL DISCRETIONARY SPENDING

The assorted cuts described above and below are facilitated by changes to the current discretionary spending caps, which dictate the size of annual appropriations each year, and which contain nearly all defense and nondefense science and technology investments.

Under current law, both defense and nondefense spending are slated for small reductions in FY 2018. As has been reported elsewhere, the Administration is looking to take $54 billion from the nondefense budget, representing about an 11 percent reduction, and shift it over to the defense budget, thereby eliminating the defense sequestration caps. Such a move would leave nondefense spending nearly 25 percent below FY 2010 levels, adjusted for inflation, while allowing defense to recover (Figures 2 and 3).

The Administration is proposing something similar for the current year, FY 2017: a $15 billion cut to the nondefense budget, and a $25 billion increase for defense. These changes can also be seen in Figures 2 and 3. [March 20 update: Appropriators are already rejecting this proposal].

Thumbnail sketches of the Administration’s plans for certain agencies are provided below. Note that, unless otherwise noted, numerical comparisons are against FY 2016 funding levels, the last year for which appropriations have been completed.

NATIONAL INSTITUTES OF HEALTH (NIH)

The NIH budget would be reduced by 19.8 percent below FY 2016 levels to $25.9 billion. Notably, the budget promises “a major reorganization of NIH’s Institutes and Centers to help focus resources on the highest priority research and training activities,” including elimination of the Fogarty International Center, which specializes in international research programs, and consolidation of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) within NIH, among other unspecified changes. There is no further detail than that.

To put these reductions in some historical context: in FY 2013, the sequestration year, the NIH budget was cut by about five percent. As a result of this funding loss, NIH was able to make about 700 fewer research project awards that year, a one-year reduction of about eight percent. The funding rate for grant applications dropped to 16.7 percent, its lowest point in at least 20 years. It's hard to fathom what the much larger Trump-proposed cuts might mean for these metrics. According to AAAS files, no administration has attempted NIH cuts as large as these since AAAS began formally monitoring the budget process in 1976.

Outside of NIH, the budget proposes a Federal Emergency Response Fund for outbreak response without specifying funding size or mechanisms; and would “reform” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by establishing a $500 million block grant program for state public health challenges.

DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY (DOE)

The budget plots a highly divergent – and unsurprising – course for DOE. As part of the overall increase in defense funding, it would boost the National Nuclear Security Administration, which takes a science-based approach to managing the nation’s stockpile, including funding for activities like the National Ignition Facility, by about 11 percent overall. The rest of the DOE science and technology budget would be substantially rolled back in pursuit of “increased reliance on the private sector to fund later-stage research, development, and commercialization of energy technologies.” The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds applied research and development in an effort to knock down high-risk energy technology challenges, would be eliminated. Applied technology programs in renewables, efficiency, fossil energy, nuclear energy, and grid-related R&D would also be cut back by an aggregate 45 percent, to allow them to focus on early stage technology research.

In spite of this apparent intent to refocus DOE’s programs, the Department’s basic research arm, the Office of Science, would not be spared. The budget merely calls for an approximate cut of 17 percent below FY 2016 levels without specifying which programs would take the axe, though it does state existing facilities would be maintained. Of note, last year’s Heritage Foundation budget – which has had a major influence on the Trump Administration’s budget proposals – called for a significant rollback or elimination of programs in nuclear physics, advanced computing, chemistry, materials science, biological, and environmental research. 

As with NIH, no administration has apparently attempted Office of Science cuts as large as these since AAAS began formally monitoring the budget in 1976.

NASA

The space agency fares relatively well in the budget request compared to other programs, subject to only a roughly one percent cut below FY 2016 levels. Public-private commercial space programs and planetary science both receive strong supporting language; the latter would grow by 16.6 percent above FY 2016 levels, with funding for the Mars 2020 rover and a Jupiter Europa fly-by. Unsurprisingly, the Obama Administration’s favored Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) would be canceled. The RESTORE-L mission would be “restructured” to reduce costs, while aeronautics research would be trimmed by 2.5 percent, and NASA’s Office of Education – which manages Space Grant, NASA’s EPSCoR, and STEM programs at minority-serving institutions – would be eliminated.

One noteworthy semi-surprise: NASA’s Earth Science program, a major climate research funder and a target for Congressional Republicans, is funded in the request at $1.8 billion. While representing a 6.3 percent cut below FY 2016 levels, it’s something of a departure in a year that sees climate programs at EPA, NOAA, and elsewhere slated for much larger cuts, especially given White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney's belief that dollars spent on climate change are a waste of money. The savings would be achieved by eliminating funding for four missions: PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR, and CLARREO Pathfinder, as well as reducing grant funding.

DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

Within Commerce, the Census Bureau would be funded at $1.5 billion (compared with FY 2016 levels of $1.4 billion, a nearly ten percent increase) in preparation for the upcoming 2020 Census. But the increases seem to end there. Reflecting the Heritage proposal’s skepticism of federal technology programs, the budget eliminates the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which seeks to boost the competitiveness of small- and medium-sized American manufacturers. It’s an interesting choice given the Administration’s manufacturing rhetoric. Hollings is located in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which receives no other mention in the budget. However, NIST was also a favored agency under President Obama and played a lead coordinating role in his National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, and so additional programmatic cuts may be in store when the full request is released.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would also see its share of cuts. The budget would cut $250 million in “targeted NOAA grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and edu­cation.” Based on an initial reading of the budget, it appears that all $250 million would apply to NOAA’s research office, which pursues an array of climate and ecosystem research, and which would be effectively cut in half (though more will be revealed with the full request). Outside the research office, NOAA’s major satellite programs (GOES-R and JPSS) would be maintained, while the Polar Follow On initiative – which seeks to fill a looming weather data gap from polar orbit – would be zeroed out in favor of reliance on commercial data.

DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE (USDA)

There was only limited information on specific USDA research programs in the budget. The Department’s competitive grants program, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative or AFRI, would be flat-funded from FY 2016 levels at $350 million, while USDA’s statistical programs would be reduced by an unspecified amount.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY (EPA)

As part of the Administration’s efforts to roll back regulation, EPA’s budget would be cut by 30 percent below FY 2016 levels, with its workforce reduced by 3,200. Climate research programs and several other activities would be zeroed out.

U.S. GEOLOGICAL SURVEY (USGS)

The USGS would receive “more than $900 million,” compared to an FY 2016 budget of $1.1 billion, representing a 10.5 percent reduction.

CONGRESSIONAL RESPONSE SO FAR

While the Administration can propose whatever it chooses, it’s up to Congress to make the final funding decisions. As can be expected, Democrats have roundly criticized the request, with some taking issue with specific cuts for science agencies, while many Republicans have more or less embraced the proposal in its broader strokes. For instance, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) urged elimination of “government programs that are duplicative or not delivering results.” Senate Appropriations Chair Thad Cochran (R-MS) praised the budget’s prioritization of national security. The fiscally conservative House Freedom Caucus – of which Mick Mulvaney, was a founding member – also praised the budget.

But other key Republicans have offered some objections. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain put it bluntly: “It is clear that this budget proposed today cannot pass the Senate.” (And this after his close colleague Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) declared the pending budget “dead on arrival” in February). Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), chair of the appropriations subcommittee that oversees DOE, said, "We will not balance the budget by cutting discretionary spending." House Appropriations Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) was a bit more circumspect, simply reminding constituents that “Congress has the power of the purse. While the President may offer proposals, Congress must review both requests to assure the wise investment of taxpayer dollars.” Senate Agricultural Appropriations Chair John Hoeven (R-ND) was as blunt as McCain: “The president’s proposed budget reduction for agriculture does not work.” And Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) released a statement strongly opposing President Trump’s budget request to eliminate funding for EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, saying he would fight to preserve the program and its funding. [March 20 update: Over the weekend, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) weighed in on the NIH cuts specifically, telling Fox News Sunday, "We just passed the Cures Act, just this last December, to increase spending in the NIH, because we really think we're kind of getting close to some breakthrough discoveries on cancer and other diseases...So [the proposed cuts are] something that I think in Congress you'll see probably some changes." And former House Appropriations Committee Chairman and current member Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) called the proposals "draconian, careless, and counterproductive."]

An important bottom line in all this is that the big-picture changes proposed to the discretionary budget will face a major uphill battle in Congress this year, for the fact that changing the spending caps requires changing the underlying law governing them (the Budget Control Act). Such a step would require 60 votes in the Senate, a likely insurmountable obstacle at this point. If Congress does keep the caps where they are, then it becomes much harder to justify or enact many of these cuts, especially for popular agencies like NIH, and the picture should be generally brighter: for assorted reasons, R&D spending tends to track discretionary spending very closely. This general state of affairs means this request may end up mattering even less than presidential budgets typically do – though there will certainly be legislators who will seize the opportunity to push for changes where they can.