The Trump Administration's Science Budget: Toughest Since Apollo?

The Reagan Administration also sought to cut R&D, but the Trump Administration is far more willing to scale back even basic science.

The FY 2018 budget proposal is undoubtedly a difficult one for R&D. But is it an historically difficult one? In a word: yes. In fact, there’s a strong argument to be made that the first Trump Administration budget is the toughest of the post-Apollo era for science and technology, even with substantial information gaps still to be filled in.

A review of presidential budgets from the past 40 years reveals that those of the early Reagan Administration were the toughest for science and engineering, until now. Figure 1 provides a side-by-side comparison of the first two Reagan budgets (for FY 1982 and FY 1983) and the FY 2018 budget outline.[i] Even without the full picture in hand for FY 2018, some significant commonalities emerge. In general, neither administration exempted R&D activities from their early efforts to cut spending. Both show clear skepticism of federal programs in energy technology and environmental R&D, and are relatively friendlier to NASA, in a fashion. But a major difference also emerges: the Trump Administration budget calls for far deeper cuts to even basic science, which pushes it into a realm of its own.

The Reagan Approach

In general, there is much in common with the fiscal strategies employed by the Trump and Reagan Administrations. Both prioritized defense spending and tax cuts; sought a shrinking nondefense budget; and pledged to leave the major entitlement programs like Social Security alone. In their useful history of postwar S&T policy, historians Alan Marcus and Amy Sue Bix describe the philosophical underpinnings of the Reagan approach to budget decisions. The description applies equally well to the Trump budget team:

To the Reagan Administration, government came from a single precept: its duty was to accomplish only those things that individuals could not. The way that the administration operationalized that principle was by a sort of means testing. In each instance of possible governmental action, it began with the negative, the assumption that government for that purpose was unnecessary. In effect, Reaganites believed in zero-based government; it was the responsibility of the petitioner for government to prove that government would be essential to achieving that particular task and that that task was a legitimate responsibility of government.

For Reagan (like Trump), this mix of principles and priorities could only mean steep cuts to nondefense programs. During the rapid FY 1982 budget preparation, this engendered often uncomfortable decisions, described in a classic piece of reporting by journalist William Greider. R&D was partly included in these cuts because, as AAAS analysts wrote in 1988, Reagan “did not come into office with a clear-cut agenda for science and technology policy…The budget drove policy, and cutting expenditures had an overriding priority.”[ii]

That first Reagan budget certainly prompted concern and outcry from a science community more accustomed to steady year-over-year increases. Adding to the controversy was the fact that the budget sought mid-stream rescissions for FY 1981, and requested far less than what President Carter had proposed in his own lame-duck budget for FY 1982.[iii] AAAS analysts at the time estimated that the Reagan revisions amounted to a 14 percent reduction below Carter’s original pitch for nondefense R&D, after inflation.[iv]

Science, Basic and Big

But while Reagan’s “zero-based government” philosophy put the onus on federal programs to justify their own existence, it did leave some (relative) room for certain basic science programs – the biggest difference between the Reagan and Trump budgets, and the reason the Trump budget appears much tougher. The FY 1982 and FY 1983 budgets actually held basic research flat or nearly so after inflation, per AAAS analyses from the time, with increases for basic research at the Defense and Energy departments offsetting real-dollar cuts for NIH and the National Science Foundation. These budgets generally prioritized the physical sciences and engineering, with steeper cuts (or increases well shy of inflation) for biomedical science, and the steepest cuts for social science. One Reagan budget official told an October 1981 gathering of scientists that the Administration did not assume everything labeled basic research had intrinsic merit.

Basic research would eventually fare better in later Reagan budgets, in accord with increasingly positive rhetoric. Reagan’s 1987 State of the Union called for “new science and technology centers and strong new funding for basic research” as a response to threats to national competitiveness, and his FY 1988 budget even recommended doubling the NSF budget in five years – not unlike the America COMPETES effort pursued by President George W. Bush two decades later. The AAAS report from 1988 describes Reagan’s general approach:

The Administration’s R&D policies have been remarkably consistent over the years, emphasizing heavy investment in military R&D, especially development; providing substantial increases to nondefense basic research, particularly in the physical sciences and engineering; showing resistance to increases in basic biomedical research; and proposing reductions in applied research in civilian agencies, including DOE, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the Bureau of Mines and others.[v]

As can be seen in Figure 2, the Reagan position on basic research is rather different from the Trump Administration position so far. One might argue that even though some agencies and disciplines did face cuts, those early Reagan budgets did possess some clear basic science priorities. It is more difficult to pin down such priorities in the Trump budget, in which the cuts are far deeper yet still mostly undefined. The picture could change once the Trump Administration reveals its as-yet-unknown plans for NSF, though one should be wary given the cuts elsewhere. Defense basic research is also an unknown: much of the rhetoric around the DOD budget has focused on an expanded force rather than science and technology.

The Reagan Administration’s “zero-based government” approach also allowed for a willingness to support “big science” activities beyond industry’s role, like the Superconducting Super Collider and the Human Genome Project. The big science embrace also extended to NASA, where both the space shuttle and the International Space Station were Administration priorities – though this also meant many other applied science and technology programs at NASA suffered in the budget requests.

Energy and Other Technology Programs

The Reagan and Trump budgets find much more common ground on federal technology programs. Like the Trump White House, Reagan’s team was deeply wary of moving government’s role beyond that of basic research to applied research and technology. As one senior White House official told a colloquium organized by AAAS in 1981, “Commercialization can best be done commercially.”[vi] Indeed, re-balancing the nondefense R&D portfolio toward basic science and away from technology was a major goal from the beginning.

This is nowhere more visible than in cuts to federal energy technology programs (Figure 3), which were a major priority for both administrations’ predecessors. While Reagan’s budgets generally sought to preserve basic science activities, it deeply cut or recommended zeroing out Department of Energy programs in solar, hydropower, geothermal, energy efficiency, and energy storage, as part of a major restructuring that would have abolished the department itself and moved its programs into other agencies.  The Reagan Administration also sought to terminate DOE support for construction of several large-scale synthetic fuels demonstration projects in partnership with industry and foreign governments. In so doing, the FY 1982 budget stated that “federal research support can be focused on relatively less costly high-risk, longer-term, high-payoff activities that the private sector traditionally has been less willing or able to undertake.” The Reagan budgets were far friendly to nuclear power; the FY 1983 request argues for “continued support for nuclear energy programs, particularly magnetic fusion and technology development for nuclear breeder reactors. Neither of these technologies is at the stage where significant industry investment can be expected.” But most energy programs failed to meet the Reagan “zero-based government” threshold.

Similar language has found a home in the Trump Administration request, which argues for “increased reliance on the private sector to fund later-stage research, development, and commercialization of energy technologies and focuses resources toward early-stage research and development.” While most details are as yet unspecified, the eventual request will seek collective savings of $2 billion through some mix of cuts to renewables, efficiency, fossil energy, nuclear energy, and grid research. The request will also seek to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a relatively new DOE agency. The decision is perplexing because ARPA-E focuses on exactly the kinds of early-stage technology activities the Trump Administration seems to want to prioritize. Indeed, the Government Accountability Office found that most ARPA-E projects are too early and unproven to attract private dollars beforehand.

An interesting note on the Reagan era, however, is that it’s also remembered as a time of increasing focus on national competitiveness. The issue was at the core of the aforementioned State of the Union in 1987. In 1983, Reagan established a Commission on Industrial Competitiveness,[vii] which eventually urged an explicit focus on manufacturing technology at public and private R&D institutions, among other things (see 1985 testimony). One product of this focus was the establishment – often led by Congress – of a growing number of programs aimed squarely at enhancing private-sector innovation and performance. One of these, the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership, was signed into law by President Reagan in the Omnibus Foreign Trade and Competitiveness Act of 1988. It has ironically been recommended for elimination by President Trump. Another example, from earlier in Reagan’s term, was the government-wide expansion of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in 1982, largely a product of Senator Ted Kennedy’s (D-MA) efforts amid opposition from the science community.[viii] In his signing statement, President Reagan remarked that the bill “recognizes that we in government must work in partnership with small business to ensure that technologies and processes are readily transferred to commercial applications.”

While these efforts owed much to Congress, other initiatives emerged more directly from the Administration, typically in response to Japanese competition and sectoral dominance. One of these was SEMATECH, a technology initiative funded jointly with U.S. semiconductor manufacturers. The project received a push thanks to national security concerns over the U.S. industrial base. Reagan’s NSF also responded to Japanese commercial advances in supercomputing through a proposed system of national research centers. And in 1987, Reagan announced a Superconductivity Initiative to develop related technology and accelerate commercialization by industry.

One shouldn’t overstate the Reagan Administration’s comfort level with federal technology programs. The Administration never lost its inherent skepticism of federal intervention beyond basic science, and often resisted them. But Reagan and his team also exhibited flexibility in the right circumstances. They proved willing to at least go along with Congressional efforts, and at times responded directly to industrial threats from abroad.

Environmental R&D

Another area where both the Reagan and Trump Administrations find much common ground is on environmental R&D (Figure 4). The Trump team’s hostility to climate-related spending of any kind has been well-covered. President Reagan also went after environmental research programs, especially in his second budget, for FY 1983. That budget proposed cuts to U.S. Geological Survey programs in volcano monitoring, earthquake hazards, and other programs, albeit amid some smaller increases for certain targeted research. The Environmental Protection Agency budget was much less forgiving, with deep cuts in most research areas.

Not shown in Figure 4 is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which was also targeted for broad-based cuts of a similar magnitude as EPA. Generally speaking, NOAA’s research programs were cut deeply and the Sea Grant program was slated for elimination, though the budgets were marginally more supportive of NOAA’s satellite activities. The ultimate Trump budget for NOAA may end up looking very similar. Lastly, NASA’s earth science activities also suffered, as they would (though perhaps less than one might have expected) under the Trump budget. The Reagan Administration never stopped attempting to reduce environmental R&D in general, though at least NASA’s earth observation activities became less of a target in later budgets.

What Actually Happened Under Reagan

During his initial budget debates, President Reagan was able to exert considerable influence over the 97th Congress, which meant the White House budget agenda certainly did have an impact on federal R&D. The Department of Defense R&D budget soared, mostly for later-stage development and engineering work. Outside of DOD, federal nondefense R&D was cut sharply in those first few years (clearly seen via the AAAS budget dashboard). While applied research and development took the brunt, basic science also suffered, as shown below. But it also quickly recovered, to the point that federal basic research was 41.3 percent higher in FY 1989 compared to FY 1980, according to AAAS data.

While Reagan controlled the agenda for several months, it didn't take long for Congress to begin to reassert itself on fiscal matters. Ultimately, Reagan never quite got everything he asked for, as is the case with most presidents. AAAS analysts writing in 1988 summed up Congressional action in the Reagan years: “Congress has responded equally consistently [to Reagan’s budgets], reducing military R&D below the President’s request, rapidly expanding biomedical research at NIH, and rejecting many of the proposed reductions in civilian applied R&D programs.”[ix]

Will the current Administration be able to influence Congress as the Reagan Administration did in its first several months? It doesn't seem terribly likely. For one, the 2016 election was not the landslide the 1980 election was, and the two presidents' early approval ratings are very different. Trump's relationship with his own party is already off to a rocky start. And initial reactions from many key Republican legislators to the FY 2018 budget request have been negative, with some objecting to science-relevant cuts in particular. The Administration faces an uphill battle securing the 60 Senate votes needed to change the discretionary spending caps

Time will tell whether the Trump Administration is able to increase legislative buy-in of its budget plans, or whether Congress blazes its own trail – and whether the current administration will evolve over time as the Reagan Administration did.


[i] Note that the figure reflects two-year changes. The figure also adjusts for inflation, as the rate of inflation was substantially higher during the early 1980s than it is now. Our comparison assumes a $950 million budget for the U.S. Geological Survey in FY 2018, given the budget outline’s mention over “over $900 million” for USGS. The FY 2018 budget’s only mention of the National Institute of Standards and Technology is elimination of Hollings MEP, and so this is the only reduction reflected in the above graph; additional reductions may be forthcoming. The Department of Energy budgets for FY 1982 and FY 1983 were pieced together based on a mix of archived official documents and AAAS reports from that era.

[ii] From Teich, Nelson, Sauer, and Gramp, AAAS Report XIII: Research & Development FY 1989.

[iii] The practice of lame-duck budgets has since gone the way of the dodo.

[iv] Shapley, Teich, and Breslow, AAAS Report VI: Research & Development FY 1982

[v] AAAS Report XIII: Research & Development FY 1989

[vii] Precursor to today’s U.S. Council on Competitiveness.

[viii] The program has since gotten positive reviews.

[ix] AAAS Report XIII: Research & Development FY 1989