From the Hill – Spring 2017

Trump administration outlines budget shakeup

The first Trump administration budget announcement provides a partial picture of what he has in mind for science and technology spending, and the first glimpse is not encouraging. This initial “skinny budget” calls for anticipated cuts in several applied technology programs in energy and manufacturing as well as several climate change research efforts. More surprising are the calls for significant reductions in fundamental scientific research at the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, activities that have traditionally attracted bipartisan support.

There are some noteworthy exceptions, however. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration 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 skinny budget includes 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. In addition, scant attention is paid to two major supporters of university research: the Department of Defense (DOD) science programs and the National Science Foundation (NSF). DOD’s science and technology activities might be expected to fare well in the end, given the administration’s focus on increasing defense spending, but that is not guaranteed. The NSF budget is not even mentioned.

The parameters of the proposed budget are defined 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 were projected to receive small reductions in FY 2018. But as the Trump administration had announced earlier, it wants to shift $54 billion (about 11%) of the nondefense budget to the defense budget. Such a move would leave nondefense spending nearly 25% in constant dollars below FY 2010 levels, while allowing defense to recover to its FY 2010 appropriation. The administration is proposing something similar for the remainder of FY 2017: a $15 billion cut to the nondefense budget, and a $25 billion increase for defense.

Thumbnail sketches of the administration’s plans for some agencies are provided below. Unless otherwise noted, comparisons are against FY 2016 funding levels, the last year for which appropriations have been completed.

The FY 2018 National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget would be reduced by 19.8% 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). There is no further detail.

To put these reductions in some historical context, in FY 2013, the sequestration year, the NIH budget was cut by about 5%, which resulted in about 700 fewer research project awards that year, a one-year reduction of about 8%. The success rate for grant applications dropped to 16.7%, its lowest point in at least 20 years. It’s hard to know what the much larger Trump-proposed cuts might mean because no administration has attempted NIH cuts this large since AAAS began formally monitoring the budget process in 1976.

Other health-related items include a proposed Emergency Response Fund for disease outbreaks, but there is no detail on funding or operations, and a pledge to “reform” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention by establishing a $500-million block grant program for state public health challenges.

The budget proposes a mixed bag for the Department of Energy (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 nuclear weapons stockpile, by about 11%. 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 aimed at high-risk energy technology challenges, would be eliminated. Applied technology programs in renewable energy, energy efficiency, fossil energy, nuclear energy, and grid-related R&D would also be cut back by an aggregate 45% in order the shift the focus to early-stage technology research.

In spite of this apparent desire to emphasize earlier stage research, the budget recommends a 17% cut to DOE’s Office of Science, which is responsible for basic research. It does not specify which programs would be most affected, but it does state that existing facilities would be maintained. Of note, last year’s Heritage Foundation budget recommendations, which have 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, the level of reduction of the Office of Science budget is unprecedented.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) fares relatively well in the budget request, a roughly 1% cut below FY 2016 levels. Public-private commercial space programs and planetary science receive strong supporting language; the latter would grow by 16.6% above FY 2016 levels, with funding included 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%, and NASA’s Office of Education, which manages Space Grant and programs aimed at minority institutions, would be eliminated.

One noteworthy surprise: NASA’s Earth Science program, a major supporter of climate research, is reduced only 6.3%–a much smaller cut than what is recommended for climate-related programs at the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Within the Department of Commerce, the Census Bureau would be funded at $1.5 billion, compared with FY 2016 level of $1.4 billion, in preparation for the 2020 Census. But the increases seem to end there. Reflecting the Heritage Foundation’s skepticism about federal technology programs, the budget eliminates the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership, which seeks to boost the competitiveness of small- and medium-sized manufacturers. It’s an interesting choice given the administration’s rhetoric about the importance of reviving manufacturing. The program is located in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), which receives no other mention in the budget. However, we would not be surprised to see that the full budget includes further cuts to NIST, which was favored by the Obama administration and played a lead coordinating role in his National Network for Manufacturing Innovation.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would also see its share of cuts. The budget would be 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 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.

Information on specific Department of Agriculture research programs is sparse. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, a competitive grants science program, would continue at its FY 2016 level of $350 million, and the department’s statistical programs would be reduced by an unspecified amount.

As part of the administration’s efforts to roll back regulation, Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) budget would be cut by 30% below FY 2016 levels, with its workforce reduced by 3,200. Climate research programs and several other activities would be zeroed out. The US Geological Survey would receive “more than $900 million,” compared to an FY 2016 budget of $1.1 billion.

What happens next?

The administration can propose whatever it chooses, but 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 President Trump’s budget director 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 (R-AZ) put it bluntly: “It is clear that this budget proposed today cannot pass the Senate.” 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.

As a first indication of how the Trump administration plans to redirect federal spending, the skinny budget deserves attention. But it leaves unanswered critical questions about entitlement spending, tax revenue, and plans for many agencies such as the National Science Foundation. It will also have to navigate the spending caps and other strictures contained in the existing Budget Control Act, which can be changed only with the support of 60% of the Senate. The road ahead is long and unpredictable.

— Matt Hourihan and David Parkes

Matt Hourihan is the director and David Parkes is senior project coordinator of the R&D Budget and Policy Program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Cite this Article

“From the Hill – Spring 2017.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 3 (Spring 2017).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, Spring 2017