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Latest White House Budget Features A Few Big Research Priorities Amid Ranging Reductions

The Trump Administration is shifting funding to quantum science, AI, and space exploration, while seemingly ignoring several other of their own priorities.

Those hoping for a different kind of White House R&D budget — in light of a thorough set of recent science priorities and a budget deal that seemingly ended debate over the current spending caps — likely had their hopes dashed Tuesday, when the Trump Administration released a new budget request cut from the same cloth as their prior offerings. As seen below, several major research funders would again see sizable reductions to their topline budgets, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation, and basic research at the Department of Defense (click to download).

Funding table for science and technology programs in the President's budget.


As a result of these disparate funding choices, basic and applied research funding would drop by $7.9 billion or 9.1 percent. Total R&D would see a commensurate drop as well. Both defense and civilian programs would be effected (see below table, based on White House data, which will be revised with updated reporting from agencies later).

Table showing R&D cuts in the President's budget


This is all facilitated by another round of likely-doomed recommendations to scale back nondefense discretionary spending: the part of the budget where most research programs live, and which is allocated annually through the appropriations process. The White House is recommending $37 billion less for nondefense spending this year, and $1.6 trillion less over the next decade, seen in the below graph.

Congress has repeatedly rejected such recommendations in the past, and there's little chance the outcome will be any different this time around.

Graph showing declining nondefense spending.


But while Congress will almost certainly reject these changes, it doesn't mean the spending caps won't be an issue one last time, before they expire next year. Under the terms of the aforementioned budget deal, spending only goes up by less than one percent this year, which will make it exceedingly difficult for Congress to make many changes — or in some cases, even keep certain agencies level with last year's spending.

Some Larger Priorities

As mentioned above, the White House released a memo (PDF) last summer outlining what looked to be a comprehensive set of R&D priorities for the forthcoming budget request, co-authored by new science advisor Kelvin Droegemeier and acting budget chief Russell Vought. In previous administrations, the annual R&D priorities memo was sometimes an indicator of what to expect from federal agencies' budgets, though the signal has been harder to see in the Trump Administration.

As it turns out, a few areas tabbed as priorities have indeed made out well in the most recent budget, including:

Quantum Science and Artificial Intelligence. There can be little doubt quantum and AI are among the top science priorities for the Trump Administration, with the budget recommending a doubling of research in both areas over the next two years. AI research at the National Science Foundation would increase by more than 70 percent to $850 million in FY 2021, with plans for collaborative institutes in partnership with several other departments. AI would play a big role in the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the competitive agricultural grants program slated for a large increase as seen in the above table.

Quantum science would see increases in the Department of Energy (DOE) and in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). Certain quantum-relevant basic science line items in the Defense Department (DOD) would also see increases.

The challenge is that each of these agencies would see fairly large funding cutbacks, as seen above, which means these initiatives come at the expense of other disciplines. While Congress has embraced these "industries of the future," it may be harder to re-allocate dollars in the current tight year.

Space Exploration. As expected, the Trump Administration is also seeking major increases for the Artemis lunar exploration program, accounting for nearly all of the agency's 12 percent increase. Again, however, such funding comes at the expense of several other programs like WFIRST and science education.

Among other previously-identified priorities, NIST would receive some funding for a new public-private innovation institute in advanced manufacturing, and DOD would renew its focus on hypersonics and space security. Veterans health research at the Department of Veterans Affairs, another cited priority, would also receive a plus-up.

And Some Smaller Priorities?

While some areas have taken the spotlight, however, several other areas deemed "priorities" by the White House last fall don't seem to have kept up, though it can be difficult to tell. For instance:

Oceans. Last year's memo directed agencies to "prioritize new and emerging technologies and collaborative approaches to efficiently map, explore, and characterize the resources of" the coastal U.S., as well as research to improve understanding of "changes in the ocean system." However, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — seemingly central to this task — would be hit with several sizable reductions, including a 37 percent reduction for the National Ocean Service and a 40 percent reduction for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (source).

Energy R&D. Echoing past budgets, the White House would eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Energy (ARPA-E) and scale back research funding for nuclear and, especially, renewable energy and energy efficiency, as seen above (source). Last year's memo called for investing in "early-stage, innovative research and technologies" to enhance U.S. energy, calling out renewables and advanced nuclear as areas for investment.

Biomedicine. Last year's memo highlighted several areas for medical research investment, including opioids-related research, neuroscience, anti-microbial resistance, infectious disease, and other topics. In this year's request, however, relevant NIH institutes to these topics like the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) would all see reductions (source), as would the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As shown above, the NIH budget would drop by nearly $3 billion, with over 1,800 fewer research grants funded and the success rate dropping to 16.5 percent NIH-wide.

Earth System Predictability. DOE's Biological and Environmental Research program — home to DOE's Energy Exascale Earth System Model — would be reduced by 31 percent, while certain NASA earth observation missions are again recommended for elimination.

Next Steps

With a tight funding environment, growing demands on the budget from multiple constituencies, and competing science priorities, Congress certainly has its work cut out for it. Ordinarily a budget resolution would be on the horizon, though that won't be a factor this year. Appropriators are already ramping up hearings and have said they want a speedy legislative process this spring.


Cover image: Lattice Quantum Chromodynamics (LQCD) cluster at Fermilab’s Grid Computing Center, Department of Energy