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The FY 2020 Budget Request: Physical Science Research

A review of funding cuts for the National Science Foundation, the Office of Science, and NIST in the White House budget.

See also: FY 2020 Science Appropriations Dashboard | R&D in the President's Budget

National Science Foundation

Bottom Line. The total NSF budget would decrease by $1 billion or 12.5 percent below FY 2019 enacted levels. Funding is prioritized for NSF’s 10 Big Ideas and convergence accelerators while the agency’s core research directorates are each slated for cuts. The total number of new NSF research grants is set to drop from the FY 2018 total of 11,717 to an estimated 10,400 – a roughly 11 percent reduction – according to agency budget documents.


10 BIG IDEAS / CONVERGENCE ACCELERATORS. NSF would continue to invest in the 10 Big Ideas, a long-term research agenda established in 2017 comprised of six research topics and four “enabling” areas (see full list). The budget designates $30 million for each of its six Research Big Ideas, for a total $180 million. Funding for the four Enabling Big Ideas would total $117.5 million, with most of this directed towards Mid-scale Research Infrastructure at $75 million. Complementing the 10 Big Ideas is NSF’s convergence accelerators, time-limited entities focused on high-risk, multidisciplinary research. The budget supports two convergence accelerators focused respectively on Harnessing the Data Revolution and Future of Work -- both topics in the 10 Big Ideas -- and are funded at $30 million each.

For a complete funding breakdown of the 10 Big Ideas/Convergence Accelerators, see this NSF table (PDF).

CROSS-FOUNDATION INITIATIVES. Funding for ongoing cross-foundation initiatives would decline, with the largest reduction directed at the INFEWS program, which is scheduled to end in FY 2020. Understanding the Brain (UtB), which includes NSF contributions to the BRAIN Initiative, would see a $34 million or 22 percent cut below FY 2018 levels as UtB activities continue to be consolidated into NSF’s research core. The Secure and Trustworthy Cyberspace (SaTC) investment area would be subject to a 4.5 percent cut, while NSF’s Innovation Corps (iCorps) program would be overall flat-funded at FY 2018 levels.

RESEARCH AND RELATED ACTIVITIES. NSF’s main research account would be cut by $857 million or 13.1 percent below FY 2018 levels. The number of new competitive awards would decline by at least 4.5 percent across all six research directorates. The budget does, however, provide targeted increases for artificial intelligence and quantum information sciences (QIS) activities, while maintaining support for research in advanced manufacturing, microelectronics and semiconductors.

Biological Sciences (BIO). The budget would scale back funding for BIO Centers for Analysis & Synthesis and eliminate contributions to the CHESS x-ray user facility at Cornell University. BIO funding for the BRAIN Initiative would be slightly increased, in spite of declining NSF support for other brain-related research elsewhere. $30 million is provided to BIO for its stewardship of the Understanding the Rules of Life Big Idea.

Computer and Information Science and Engineering (CISE). The budget proposes broad cuts across the CISE research accounts but maintains funding for cyberinfrastructure and the advanced computing portfolio of leadership-class systems including Frontera. Funding would be cut by 74 percent at the Center for Science of Information at Purdue University. $30 million is provided to CISE for its stewardship of the Harnessing the Data Revolution Big Idea.

Engineering (ENG). The budget would reduce funding for NSF’s Engineer Research Centers by 20 percent, and cut the Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI) budget in half. A total 7 percent decrease is slated for the SBIR/STTR program. $30 million is provided to ENG for its stewardship of the Future of Work Big Idea.

Geosciences (GEO). The budget proposes a $27 million or 21 percent cut to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). Within the Ocean Sciences division, there is a 14 percent cut to the Academic Research Fleet, alongside a 21 percent cut to the Ocean Observatories Initiative. $30 million is provided to GEO for its stewardship of the Navigating the New Arctic Big Idea.

Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. Image courtesy NSF.

Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS). The budget proposes broad reductions to astronomical research infrastructure, including the Gemini Observatory, Arecibo Observatory, and National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). Additional funding is granted for up to four new Materials Innovation Platform awards. Increases are also slated for both the Large Hadron Collider and LIGO facility. MPS receives $30 million each for the Quantum Leap and Windows on the Universe Big Ideas.

Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences (SBE). The budget would cut research within the Social and Economic Sciences and Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences divisions by 3 percent and 7 percent, respectively. The National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics (NCSES) budget is slated for a $5 million or 9 percent cut below FY 2018 levels. The SBE Office of Multidisciplinary Activities would also see its funding scaled back by 8 percent.

EDUCATION AND HUMAN RESOURCES (EHR). The budget proposes broad cuts to STEM programs including the Robert Noyce Teacher Scholarship Program, Hispanic Serving Institutions Program, and Historically Black Colleges and Universities Undergraduate Program. Flat funding is slated for both the Cybercorps and Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation programs. The Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP) would support 1,600 new fellows; NSF has been supporting 2,000 new fellows annually in recent years.

Large Hadron Collider. Image courtesy NSF.

MAJOR RESEARCH EQUIPMENT AND FACILITIES CONSTRUCTION. The budget recommends $45 million for a new Mid-scale Research Infrastructure program, as part of the $75 million Big Idea investment noted above, to support high-priority projects in the $20 million to $70 million range. NSF also requests $33 million to begin a five-year project upgrading components of the Large Hadron Collider. Continued funding is provided for the Antarctic Infrastructure Modernization for Science (AIMS) project, initiated last year, and the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST) located in Chile. The budget provides no funding for the Regional Class Research Vessels (RCRV) project and the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST), with both scheduled for completion this upcoming 2020 fiscal year.

Department of Energy Office of Science

The Office of Science (SC) would be subject to a billion-dollar funding cut in the White House budget request (and not for the first time), amounting to a 15.8 percent reduction below FY 2019. Within that context, Quantum Information Science remains a priority with $168 million requested. Exascale computing is also a priority at $500 million, with the National Nuclear Security Administration receiving another $309 million for exascale-related activities. Lab infrastructure modernization would be reduced by $69.3 million or 29.8 percent from FY 2019, to $163.6 million total.


Advanced Scientific Computing Research (ASCR). ASCR remains the relative priority within SC for the Trump Administration with “only” a $15 million or 1.6 percent reduction below FY 2019 levels. Total exascale initiative funding would reach $463.7 million, a slight decline given evolving vendor partnerships but with a $25 million increase in non-construction funding (and following the recent announcement by DOE and Intel of the construction of the exascale Aurora supercomputer at Argonne). Applied math and computer science research would increase by 12.1 percent to $147 million with a focus on artificial intelligence and machine learning. The Leadership Computing Facilities at Argonne and Oak Ridge would each see funding increases of 7.1 percent and 5.5 percent, respectively. National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center funding would decline by 18.3 percent following the wind-down of site preparation for the NERSC-9 upgrade.

Basic Energy Sciences (BES). BES would decline by $308 million or 14.2 percent below FY 2019. The bulk of this reduction is due to stated reduced needs for construction funding for certain projects, including the Linac Coherent Light Source-II at SLAC, which received its final appropriation last year. Reductions for the materials science and chem / geo / biosciences divisions would be more moderate. The Energy Frontier Research Centers program would see an 18.2 percent increase to $130 million in FY 2020 with a new competition on the horizon. BES’s various user facilities including light sources, neutron sources, and Nanoscale Science Research Centers would see reductions of 4-10 percent, with source operations at 87 percent of optimal. Support for the artificial photosynthesis and energy storage hubs would continue, with the former getting a $5 million increase.

Biological and Environmental Research (BER). BER would decline by $211 million or 29.9 percent below FY 2019. This includes a $41 million or 11.1 percent reduction to the biological sciences division, including genomics and imaging; and a $170 million or 50.3 percent reduction to the earth and environment science division, including a 61.2 percent reduction for earth modeling activities. Joint Genome Institute funding would decline by $10 million or 14.3 percent; Environmental Molecular Sciences Lab funding would decline by $5 million or 11.1 percent; Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) Lab funding would decline by $43 million or 49.7 percent.

Fusion Energy Sciences (FES). Funding would decline by $161 million or 28.6 percent below FY 2019. This includes a $137.3 million or 31.8 percent reduction to research activities (which would decline to $294.8 million total) and an 18.9 percent reduction (to $107 million total) for ITER funding. Funding would also continue for NSTX-U repairs and recovery, while allowing for 13 weeks of DIII-D operations. FES SciDAC funding would receive a $1 million increase to $26 million.

Test cell of NSTX-U, Princeton Plasma Physics Lab. | Elle Starkman/PPPL Communications

High Energy Physics (HEP). Funding would decline by $212 million or 21.6 percent below FY 2019, including a $152.0 million or 19.0 percent reduction for research activities. Some of the very few areas slated for increases include an additional $6.9 million increase to $20.3 million for advanced computational tools and a $10.8 million increase to $38.3 million for HEP’s quantum science activities including consortia. The budget request continues funding the Proton Improvement Plan II project at Fermilab, while funding for the Muon to Electron Conversion Experiment (Mu2e) wrapped up in FY 2019.

Nuclear Physics. Funding would decline by $65 million or 9.4 percent below FY 2019. The budget includes $5 million in new construction funding for the Stable Isotope Production and Research Center at Oak Ridge in FY 2020, along with a $6.7 million increase for isotope production, processing, and harvesting research and workforce development. Most other research areas would decline. The budget substantially reduces beam operations time at CEBAF (Jefferson Lab), ATLAS (Argonne), and RHIC (Brookhaven) beam time. Facility for Rare Isotope Beam construction funding ramps down in accord with project profile.

Workforce Programs. Student and educator support programs would decline by $3 million or 13.3 percent to $19.5 million total. Undergraduate laboratory internships would decline from 1,000 to 870; supported graduate researchers would decline from 210 to 115; and supported Einstein Fellows would drop from six to four. On the other hand, community college internships would increase from 100 in FY 2019 to 110. Visiting faculty at the national labs would see no change.

National Institute of Standards and Technology

NIST’s principal Scientific and Technical Research Services (STRS) account, which funds the agency’s lab programs, is slated for an overall $113 million or 15.6 percent cut below FY 2019 levels. The proposed cut would result in an elimination of about 400 employed scientists and engineers, a more than 17 percent reduction in NIST’s scientific workforce, according to the agency.

Of NIST’s labs, the budget requests a 1.9 percent increase for the Physical Measurement Lab but reductions of 12-27 percent below FY 2019 levels for the other labs, along with an 8.1 percent reduction for the Center for Neutron Research (see table). The Innovations in Measurement Science Program and the Postdoctoral Research Associates Program would receive increases of 2 percent and 5 percent, respectively.


The Administration would scale back research in advanced communications and networks, materials, advanced manufacturing, physical infrastructure and resilience, among other areas. Funding would be eliminated for NIST’s three Centers of Excellence, the Urban Dome program measuring greenhouse gas emissions, the Joint Institute for Metrology in Biology, and disaster resilience and fire research grants programs. NIST would no longer support a centrally managed forensic science research program, and would reduce support for the Organization of Scientific Area Committees (OSAC) program charged with setting standards for forensic science.

Within a downsized lab budget, funding as elsewhere is prioritized for quantum science, with $10 million provided to establish an industry consortium to accelerate quantum-related research and applications, in support of the White House National Strategic Overview for Quantum Information Science. The budget also prioritizes investment in the NIST-on-a-Chip program, which aims to develop quantum-based measurement technologies for the private sector. Additionally, there is an $8 million increase for artificial intelligence research, alongside a $10 million plus-up for microelectronics-related measurement science to produce new semiconductor materials and other applications. NIST’s Cybersecurity and Privacy funding portfolio is left intact, with continued support for activities such as the Internet of Things (IoT) program that is developing guidance to improve cybersecurity of connected devices.

Research facilities construction funding would more than triple to a total $348 million. This includes $60 million in discretionary funding that would be used for basic maintenance of NIST’s current facilities. In addition, the Administration requests $288 million to renovate NIST's Building 1 project at the Boulder campus; this would be financed through a new Federal Capital Revolving Fund, a newly-proposed method of long-term budgeting for capital projects. The fund would cover the upfront cost of the renovation, and NIST would make payments of $19.2 million annually over the next 15 years through the ordinary annual appropriations process.


David Parkes

Program Associate

Matt Hourihan