Two Proposals That Could Influence The Trump Budget Team's Thinking

Physics, climate, chemistry, and applied energy technology among research areas targeted for cuts in a pair of relevant budget proposals from last year.
Credit: DHS / Jetta Disco

One week after the inauguration, there is still more uncertainty than clarity regarding the Trump Administration’s approach to science and technology funding, as other issues have taken early prominence. Initial reporting has focused on leaked Administration materials and proposals that emerged during the campaign and transition. These have included steep cuts to energy technology at the Department of Energy (DOE) and programs at the Environmental Protection Agency; an early infrastructure priorities list with a few technology-relevant items; and an earlier proposal from Trump’s campaign advisers to reduce and move earth science activities out of NASA and over to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. While these items are certainly suggestive, they remain publicly unconfirmed by the new Administration. In addition, there’s also the fiscal track record of Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-SC), a foe of discretionary spending and a deficit hawk nominated to serve as White House budget director.

While further clarity awaits, additional clues might be found in a pair of relevant budget proposals from last year: the Heritage Foundation’s set of recommendations for the fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget, and the related Republican Study Committee’s budget. Both of these sought major cuts to discretionary spending overall and targeted certain areas of science and technology for cuts, particularly energy, climate, and applied technology programs.

Why are these proposals relevant? The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, has been a major presence in Trump’s campaign and transition. And as previously noted, Rep. Mulvaney has been an active member of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a fiscally conservative coalition of House members. Some of the ideas presented in these documents have already emerged in the reporting linked above, and it’s likely that their recommendations will continue to get attention from the new Administration’s senior budget team, which includes personnel from the aforementioned organizations.

A list of science-specific items from these budgets is reviewed below, but a few caveats need to be emphasized at the outset. First, the Trump Administration has not actually proposed any of this, nor are they guaranteed to in the next budget. Obviously, thinking on spending priorities in even the highest levels of power can evolve. In addition, the process of formulating an executive branch budget can involve quite a bit of push-and-pull between White House leadership and newly-appointed cabinet and agency heads going to bat for their respective departments. For instance, energy science and technology may be a target, and yet Governor Rick Perry, Trump’s nominee for Energy Secretary, has said he is “going to protect all the science” at DOE. It remains to be seen how that dynamic plays out when reality sets in and it comes time to put an actual budget together. To be clear: the goal here is not to predict what will happen, or even what is likely to happen, but to highlight some potential influences on White House spending preferences. This particularly matters if the new Administration attempts to cut back nondefense discretionary spending overall, and must juggle cuts with priorities.

Second, perhaps more importantly, even if these proposals find their way into the first Trump budget, Congress will have the final say on spending. Congressional appropriators, who have the power of the purse, often have very different takes on federal programs than the White House. A president’s budget – and veto pen – do matter for setting the contours of the debate, especially when there’s unified control of government, but many legislators in both parties will likely oppose some of the steeper cuts outlined below. A president can influence the debate, but legislators ultimately have to answer to their constituents. Thus, for a more complete picture of where things may be headed, we’ve also included notes on recent appropriations debates, and recommendations found in the House of Representatives budget resolution from last spring. The latter document, though it didn’t pass, contained some commonalities with the Heritage and RSC budgets – most notably a long-term reduction in nondefense discretionary spending, as seen in Figure 1 (Note the RSC budget recommended a 25 percent reduction in nondefense discretionary budget authority below the current baseline through FY 2026; the Heritage budget would cut deeper than that).

WHAT ISN’T MENTIONED

A good place to start is what the Heritage and RSC budgets did not specifically mention: the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), NASA, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture research programs. Indeed, it may surprise some to learn that the bulk of the federal research enterprise was not targeted for particular cuts in either of these documents. This suggests a continued recognition, even among ardent spending hawks, that discovery science is something government should do, within certain bounds. Mulvaney confirmed his own thinking on this during his recent Senate hearing when he told Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA), “Generally I do believe there is a proper role for the federal government in research,” specifically when the private sector won’t step in.

These research agencies also have their supporters in Congress. For instance, the House budget resolution had positive remarks for NIH (and CDC), saying they foster “fundamental creative discoveries, cures, and therapies, and serve as the first line of defense against health safety and security threats. The budget resolution supports a level of funding for these agencies that enables them to continue their important work.” NIH has also fared well in appropriations of late. Competitive grant funding at USDA has continued to rise in spite of the tight fiscal environment. And many NSF and NASA programs have their champions still.

That’s not to say these programs will be free of controversy in the upcoming funding cycle. Some in Congress would like to see NASA earth science funding scaled back and redistributed to other NASA programs. Similarly, some would like to see NSF funding move from the geosciences and social sciences to other disciplines and to STEM education. USDA formula funds remain a low priority.

Generally, funders are always on the hunt for waste, duplication, and programs outside an agency’s mission. There’s an ever-present debate over the appropriate role of government on technology. And again, the biggest wildcard is what the Administration and Congress attempt to do on nondefense discretionary spending, which could have a ripple effect across all agencies and programs.

DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE

Both the Heritage and RSC budgets call for more DOD spending overall, reflecting President Trump’s rhetoric and recent executive order in support of defense spending. Most of the focus has been on military readiness and modernization, but research and advanced technology would likely benefit to some extent from a general increase as well.

There are a few specific reductions worth noting. First, both the Heritage and RSC budgets recommend cutting back non-combat elements in DOD’s medical research program, which they argue are duplicative of NIH efforts. Congress regularly adds anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion to the DOD budget each year for peer-reviewed research on an array of diseases and conditions like spinal cord injuries, prosthetics, and PTSD. Heritage would leave most of this in place, while doing away with research on multiple cancers including prostate, ovarian, and breast cancer, as well as epilepsy; these altogether received roughly $228 million in the FY 2016 omnibus.

These recommendations don’t actually matter much for the next Trump budget: the Pentagon never actually requests these funds anyway, and Congress simply includes them in Defense appropriations as an add-on – and a popular one. Indeed, one of the easiest ways to tell when the House or Senate is considering Defense appropriations is to look for the lineup of legislators trying to add a few extra million for their favored disease research program. There is little indication this practice will cease.

Perhaps more relevant are two other Heritage recommendations. First, Heritage recommends reducing an unspecified amount of DOD funding for STEM education activities. Second, Heritage hones in on alternative energy research programs for elimination within the three military branches. These include R&D funded through the Army’s National Automotive Center; multiple Navy projects dealing with microgrids, high-efficiency hulls, fuel cells, and other topics; and technology transitions and prototyping within the Air Force. These activities tallied up to $60 million in FY 2016.

DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY

DOE would be subject to some of the toughest proposals in either budget – many of which have been previously reported – though they take wildly different approaches to the Office of Science, DOE’s basic research arm. The RSC budget is actually silent on the office. Heritage, on the other hand, proposes eliminating several projects and cutting others, arguing that much of the Office of Science’s work is unaffordable or too focused on technology and commercialization. Specifically:

  • Nuclear physics and advanced computing research are deemed as too expensive and rolled back to 2008 levels, representing respective cuts of 21.1 and 34.9 percent in these areas.
  • While Heritage argues there may be “reason to phase out all funding” for DOE’s Basic Energy Sciences Program (BES), it would only eliminate research programs on geoscience, photochemistry, and photosynthetic systems. It would also end DOE’s EPSCoR program, which attempts to broaden the geographic distribution of federal research dollars. It would reduce several other programs in the material and chemical sciences back to 2008 levels, amounting to roughly a 24 percent reduction for BES overall. As a rationale, the proposal argues that “private companies are capable of fulfilling these roles, whether through their own laboratories or by funding university research. On areas that focus on fundamental research and not commercial activi­ties, the funding has simply become too excessive.”
  • The Biological and Environmental Research (BER) program would be eliminated, in large part because of its hand in climate science. While the Obama Administration and Congress often battled over the program’s climate-related activities, appropriators tended to support BER’s research in genomics and radiology, though Heritage would cut these as well.

DOE’s applied technology programs fare far worse in both the Heritage and RSC budgets, reflecting skepticism of government’s role in energy technology of any kind. Both call for outright elimination of DOE’s R&D work in efficiency, renewable energy, carbon capture and storage, and advanced manufacturing. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a young agency modeled after DARPA to fund high-risk energy projects, would also be eliminated in both budgets, though they offer contradictory reasoning: the RSC argues ARPA-E’s projects are too high-risk to be attractive to private investors, while Heritage argues they’re not high-risk enough and already sufficiently attractive to industry.[1]

Beyond these, the Heritage budget goes further still, arguing for the elimination of all grid-related R&D at DOE and ending the Energy Innovation Hubs, large multidisciplinary teams modeled after Bell Labs to drive hard at breakthrough technology challenges. Heritage also recommends steep cuts to nuclear technology, cutting back funding for fuel cycle R&D and eliminating the Nuclear Science User Facilities, a network of experimental beamlines and reactors at national labs and universities across the country.

While these proposals would be harsh for researchers and engineers, it’s worth reinforcing the point that even if some of these recommendations influence the Trump team’s budget, many legislators will feel differently. The Office of Science has its supporters on the relevant appropriations subcommittees, and the office has received funding boosts when the fiscal environment allows it (see, for instance, Figure 2). It’s been a somewhat similar story on the applied front, though partisan differences remain over energy sources and government’s technological role. Applied energy technology will certainly be an area to watch, especially if the discretionary budget is coming down.

DEPARTMENT OF COMMERCE

Continuing the theme of skepticism over government’s role in technology for commercial industrial purposes, the Heritage and RSC budgets both recommend eliminating the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), as did the House budget resolution. Established in 1988 and administered by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), MEP seeks to boost the competitiveness of small and medium-sized American manufacturers. In addition, both the Heritage and House budget resolutions recommended ending the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation (which has been rebranded Manufacturing USA), a multiagency public-private network of institutes authorized in 2014 that attempt to accelerate innovation in high-tech areas like 3D printing, advanced materials, and robotics. One question on this front is whether the Administration will take this advice, given the President’s focus on manufacturing (see, for instance, this recent memorandum on domestic investment). Another question is whether they’ll cut into the portion of these activities funded through the Department of Defense, which has an interest in sustaining an advanced domestic industrial base.

Somewhat surprisingly, climate research activities at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration go unmentioned in either report.

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY

Given recent developments, it should come as little surprise that EPA features prominently in these budget proposals. The RSC budget simply calls for a large-scale funding rollback; Heritage gets a bit more specific, recommending a cessation of all climate-related funding, tallying in the billions. This would include all regulatory activities, greenhouse gas reporting, green infrastructure, and tools to build resilience in water utilities. Heritage would also eliminate over $200 million in EPA research programs on climate, health, and other matters.

EPA has been no favorite of appropriators, but these proposals for rather massive reductions are probably further than many legislators would be willing to go – again, unless the overall discretionary budget is coming down and they need items to cut. Already, Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID), a key member of the relevant appropriations subcommittee for EPA, has gone on record opposing rumored cuts to EPA’s revolving funds for water infrastructure. Still, given the heat surrounding the agency, it’s hard to imagine EPA research escaping the next funding round unscathed.

UNAUTHORIZED APPROPRIATIONS

An ongoing bugaboo for legislators is the presence of unauthorized appropriations: that is, funding for programs that don’t have current legislation in place from the relevant Congressional authorizing committees to actually receive funding (here’s a good, short explainer). While not actually illegal, appropriations without authorizations are technically in violation of House and Senate rules, though legislators usually refrain from enforcing them. The Congressional Budget Office keeps a tally of unauthorized spending, which can run in the hundreds of billions a year, and includes at least portions of several major science and technology agencies like NASA, NIH, and the National Science Foundation.

Both the RSC and Heritage budgets recommend tackling this problem by reducing spending on unauthorized programs to varying degrees, at least until Congress passes authorizing legislation to establish funding parameters and bring these appropriations out of conflict with the rules. While a technical issue of unknown relevance for the Trump budget team, it’s a matter that certainly bears watching should it gain steam in the new Congress.

OTHER ITEMS

Two other seemingly unlikely items from the Heritage budget are mentioned here for completeness’ sake. First, Heritage recommends privatizing the mapping functions of the U.S. Geological Survey and eliminating anything else that can’t be privatized. Second, Heritage also recommends privatizing the Federal Railroad Administration’s R&D program and eliminating the rest of that agency.

 

[1] The Government Accountability office published a good, though early, review of ARPA-E here: http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-407T