From the Hill – Summer 2017

Trump Budget Proposal: Gloomy, but Just a Proposal

The eyes of the research community are focused on the Trump administration’s proposed FY 2018 budget, which was released in May, and its fate in Congress. The proposed budget includes significant cuts in R&D spending, but Congress’s final action on the FY 2017 budget, which took place in March, indicates that the current Republican-controlled Congress is not as willing as the president to reduce R&D spending. Although it was feared that the omnibus bill that was passed in March would be the first step in implementing the cuts that President Trump had promised, Congress approved a budget for the remainder of FY 2017 that would actually increase federal R&D by 5% above FY 2016 levels, according to AAAS estimates, with increases for basic and applied research, development, and R&D facilities funding.

Funding was increased for several agencies and programs—perhaps most notably the National Institutes of Health (NIH); the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) research office; Department of Defense (DOD) science and technology programs; and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. These increases are the opposite of the stated plans of the Trump administration, providing an indication that Congress might not be inclined to accept the president’s proposal for budget cuts in these areas in FY 2018.

That would be welcome news to the research community because the administration’s budget proposal includes historically large cuts in R&D spending in most government programs.

The reductions in research funding are part of an overall realignment of priorities in discretionary spending. The administration proposes reducing nondefense discretionary spending $54 billion or 10.9% below FY 2017 levels in order to boost defense spending. But what’s clear now is that the Trump administration intends this to be just the first in a decade-long series of cuts that would end with an FY 2027 nondefense discretionary budgets that is 41.9% lower than the FY 2017 total in constant dollars.

This matters because every science and technology agency and program outside the DOD and the National Nuclear Security Administration is housed in the nondefense budget. Priorities within the nondefense federal activities are relatively stable over time so that a reduction in overall spending will mean a reduction in R&D spending, even in popular programs such as NIH.

A detailed look at the proposed FY 2018 budget provides a clear picture of what to expect. According to preliminary AAAS estimates, the White House would cut total research funding by 16.8%, or $12.6 billion. Our analysis indicates that this would be the largest decline in federal R&D support in more than 40 years and that federal research spending would equal just 0.31% of gross domestic product, the lowest level in more than 40 years.

The National Institutes of Health is slated for a 21.5% reduction below omnibus funding levels, which would essentially wipe out the agency’s budget doubling that began in the George W. Bush administration. The White House would eliminate the Fogarty International Center and consolidate the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality into NIH as a new institute. But the long history of strong bipartisan support for NIH research and the current Congress’s decision to increase NIH funding in the FY 2017 omnibus bill suggest that the administration’s proposed cuts will not be accepted.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) budget would decrease by $819 million or 11% below FY 2017. The agency estimates that this would result in 800 fewer new research grant awards than the 8,800 total in FY 2016. The proposal success rate is expected to drop from 21% in FY 2016 to 19% in the upcoming fiscal year.

The Research & Related Activities account, made up of NSF’s core research programs across multiple disciplines, would see a cut of $672 million or 11.1% below FY 2017. The six research directorates comprising this account would see roughly equal percentage reductions of around 10% each.

The Directorate for Education and Human Resources would be reduced by $119 million or 13.6%, with a particularly sharp cut to graduate research fellowships. The Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which seeks to broaden the geographic distribution of NSF dollars, would also see a funding reduction of $60 million or 37.5% below the FY 2016 amount of $160 million. NSF’s cross-foundation investments (including Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems; Risk and Resilience; and Understanding the Brain) would fall below FY 2016 levels.

The net result of these cuts would be to reduce the inflation-adjusted budget to its FY 2002 level, thus eliminating all the gains fueled by the 2007 America COMPETES Act, which had set a goal of doubling the NSF budget.

In spite of the overall increase in defense spending, Department of Defense science and technology programs would generally not benefit. DOD basic research would be cut by 2.1%. The Army’s research and advanced technology programs would be cut by 22.4%. On the other hand, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency would receive a 9.7% increase.

The proposed Department of Energy budget illustrates the administration’s general approach to science and technology: a particular skepticism of federal technology programs and hostility to climate research; a general interest in scaling back even fundamental science; and a desire to increase investment in defense-related activities.

Starting with basic research, the Office of Science budget would receive a 17.1% reduction from FY 2017 omnibus levels, returning its budget to where it was about 10 years ago. The sole program to receive an increase is Advanced Scientific Computing Research, at 11.6% above omnibus levels, largely due to a 19.9% increase for its exascale computing activities. Most research areas within Basic Energy Sciences (BES), including materials science, physics, and chemical science, appear slated for at least some reduction. The budget eliminates funding for BES’s two innovation hubs, which focus on energy storage and artificial photosynthesis, and for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, which directs funds to states that receive a disproportionately small share of federal research spending. BES user facilities will also see a scaling back from omnibus 2017 funding levels. For instance, BES’s five synchrotron radiation light sources would see a 12.4% reduction, and the Nanoscale Science Research Centers would see a 41.8% reduction.

Unsurprisingly, given its past focus on climate, Biological and Environmental Research (BER) would receive the largest relative reduction of any program area within the Office of Science, with its environmental research branch rebranded away from climate and newly named Earth and Environmental Systems Sciences. Biological sciences would be trimmed (including a 46.6% reduction for the Bioenergy Research Centers), and the administration proposes even sharper cuts for environmental science. That side of BER would drop from an overall budget of $314.7 million in FY 2016 to $123.6 million in FY 2018. Curiously, the administration has proposed a 26% increase to $63 million for the International Thermal Energy Reactor program, the troubled international project supported via Fusion Energy Sciences. Funding for domestic research activities would be reduced by 25.2% in total, with particular reductions for fundamental plasma research. Neither High Energy Physics nor Nuclear Physics was given much detail in the omnibus package, but both would be subject to general reductions below FY 2016 levels in multiple areas.

The Energy Department’s applied technology programs would receive even deeper cuts, reflecting the administration’s interest in limiting the scope of government’s role in science and technology and its preference for relying instead on industry to bring new technologies to fruition. Perhaps the biggest decision is the proposed elimination of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which funds high-risk technology projects and which just received a solid funding boost from Congress. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would also see severe reductions to its assorted programs, ranging from 55.4% for hydrogen and fuel cells to 82% for geothermal. The budget would zero out the office’s innovation hubs on advanced materials and desalination, the latter of which just received its first funding in the omnibus, and its manufacturing innovation institutes. The Fossil Energy R&D program would substantially scale back most activities, including carbon capture and storage pilot projects and R&D on advanced combustion systems, re-focusing exclusively on exploratory technology activities in hopes that industry will take on greater responsibility across the board. The Office of Nuclear Energy would similarly see a reduction in several activities, with its innovation hub on modeling and simulation zeroed out. R&D related to advanced reactor technology and fuel cycle sustainability, efficiency, and safety would be scaled back and shifted to earlier-stage technology. The office would, however, pursue a $10 million plan to build a new fast test reactor.

The National Nuclear Security Administration, benefiting from the proposed 10% increase in defense spending, would see a mix of increases for its research, development, test, and evaluation accounts. The primary accounts providing funding for the National Ignition, Z, and Omega facilities would see only modest changes, and activities related to exascale computing would also see increased funding.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would see an overall reduction of 2.9%, a virtual windfall compared with other agencies. The space agency has enjoyed recent funding gains, with a $1.3 billion increase in FY 2016 and a smaller but substantial boost in the FY 2017 omnibus.

Within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the budget provides Planetary Science with a 4.5% increase, including a $150 million boost above FY 2017 omnibus funding to $425 million in total, for a planned mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The FY 2018 proposal would bolster the Discovery missions and continue Mars activities, though at funding levels below the omnibus. It would also cut New Frontiers by 40%. The Earth Science portfolio would decrease by 8.7%. The budget maintains support for Landsat 9 development. The Heliophysics Program would be flat-funded from FY 2017, whereas Astrophysics would see a total 8.9% increase to fund the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, among other missions. The proposal provides the full level of funding to keep the James Webb Space Telescope on schedule for a 2018 launch.

The Space Launch System and Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, which both receive strong support in Congress, would be trimmed below FY 2017 levels. The budget confirms plans to cancel the Asteroid Redirect Mission, an Obama administration priority, and instead directs efforts toward developing solar-electric propulsion capabilities. The administration also offers no funding for RESTORE-L, which aims to demonstrate the servicing of a government satellite in low-Earth orbit and was funded at $130 million in the FY 2017 omnibus. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program would see a substantial funding reduction of $453 million or 38.2% below the FY 2017 level.

NASA Aeronautics would decline by 5.4% but receive continued support for the New Aviation Horizons initiative, which is carrying out a series of experimental X-Plane demonstration activities. The Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs within the Space Technology Mission Directorate would fall below FY 2016 levels. Finally, the president’s budget proposes the termination of the Office of Education, responsible for the Space Grant consortia and other activities, requesting $37 million to wind down activities.

The Agricultural Research Service (ARS) would see a reduction of 29.2% below the FY 2017 omnibus. This includes a 15.2% or $177.9 million reduction for ARS’s primary research account, which would result in the closure of 17 laboratories and other worksites, representing nearly a fifth of all locations. Projects in all areas would see some level of reduction or elimination, with particular reductions targeted at research programs in bio-based products and biofuels (by at least 29.5%) and human nutrition (by at least 48.5%). In addition, the administration recommends rescinding all budget authority for facilities construction granted by Congress in FY 2017. ARS had originally intended to use that funding for construction at the Agricultural Research Technology Center in Salinas, California, and at the Foreign Disease-Weed Science Research Unit at Ft. Detrick, Maryland.

The National Institute of Food and Agriculture would see an 8.1% reduction. The institute would keep the largest formula-fund programs nearly flat in FY 2018, save for a $5 million or 15.0% reduction to McIntire-Stennis state forestry research. It would eliminate several smaller activities, including capacity grants at non-land grant universities; research programs on alfalfa, animal disease, and aquaculture; and multiple education programs. Sustainable agriculture grant funding would decline by at least 22.8%. The Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the Department of Agriculture’s competitive extramural research program, would decline to $349.3 million in FY 2018, which is 6.8% below omnibus levels. The administration would allow the small Biomass R&D Initiative, a mandatory multiagency program authorized through FY 2017 in the most recent farm bill, to expire.

The Economic Research Service would see an 11.6% reduction below omnibus levels. Several work areas would see reductions, including program evaluation, analysis of drought resilience, bioenergy data modeling, and other data acquisition and access. The National Agricultural Statistics Service would receive an overall 8.4% increase above omnibus levels. Although the service would be cut 5.6% as a result of reducing the sample sizes of several survey series, funding for the Census of Agriculture would be increased 50% to $63.9 million.

The Forest Service’s Forest & Rangeland Research funding account would be reduced by 10.2%. Affected research program areas include invasive species, air quality research, clean water, and resource management. The Forest Service’s fire-related R&D activities would be reduced by a similar amount, and efforts to understand the social and economic elements of wildfire would be terminated.

According to agency and historical data, total R&D funding for the Agriculture Department in FY 2018 would drop to its lowest point since 1989 in inflation-adjusted dollars.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) core research laboratories would take a substantial reduction in FY 2018, and the agency’s industrial services account would be nearly eliminated. The Scientific and Technical Research Services account, which funds NIST’s seven core research laboratories, would see a large $90 million or 13% cut. This would result in a 10% reduction in NIST’s scientific workforce. The cut would reduce funding for many program areas, including advanced materials manufacturing, semiconductor measurements, cybersecurity, and quantum science, among others. The budget would eliminate NIST’s extramural Fire Research Grants Program and the Nanomaterial Environment, Health, and Safety Program, which studies the potential environmental or health impacts of engineered nanomaterials.

Within NIST’s Industrial Technology Services account, the Hollings Manufacturing Extension Partnership would be eliminated, with $6 million requested to cover costs associated with winding down the program. The elimination would affect over 2,500 partners and approximately 9,400 client firms, according to agency budget documents. Manufacturing USA, formerly known as the National Network for Manufacturing Innovation, would receive $15 million, a $10 million reduction.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s total discretionary budget would decrease by $900 million or 15.9% below the 2017 omnibus level. Steep cuts would hit the National Ocean Service and climate, weather, and air chemistry research programs.

The Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, the primary R&D arm of NOAA, would face a 31.9%. A 19% cut to NOAA Climate Research would reduce funding for Cooperative Institutes, universities, NOAA laboratories, and other partners. The 25.4% proposed cut to NOAA Weather and Air Chemistry Research would terminate the Air Resources Laboratory, which studies air pollution and climate variability, and the Unmanned Aircraft Systems Program Office. The budget would also eliminate the Joint Technology Transfer Initiative, recently established to quickly transition the latest research into weather forecasting products, and Vortex-Southeast, an effort to better understand tornado formation in the US Southeast. Funding for the Ocean, Coastal, and Great Lakes Research Program would be cut by nearly half, with a proposed elimination of the National Sea Grant College Program.

For the National Ocean Service, the budget proposes cutting $23 million in federal support to states for the management of the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, a network of 29 coastal sites designated to protect and study estuarine systems. Within the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R Series and the Joint Polar Satellite System would see funding reductions in line with planned launch preparation activities, and the Polar Follow On, currently funded at $369 million, would be cut in half and plans initiated to seek cost efficiencies and leverage partnerships. The National Weather Service’s Science and Technology Integration Office would see several program terminations. NOAA’s ship fleet recapitalization efforts would be flat-funded at $75 million, which would support construction of a second NOAA Class A vessel for oceanographic research.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s science and technology account would be cut by $263 million, which is 36.8% below the FY 2017 omnibus level. The US Geological Survey would be subject to an overall 15% cut from its $1.1 billion level.

The Census Bureau would receive a $51 million or 4.3% increase for periodic censuses and programs. This comes amid rising cost concerns in preparing for the 2020 Decennial Census. The bureau also conducts a range of monthly, quarterly, and annual surveys, including the American Community Survey, a source of detailed community-level information about employment, educational attainment, and other topics.

Cite this Article

“From the Hill – Summer 2017.” Issues in Science and Technology 33, no. 4 (Summer 2017).

Vol. XXXIII, No. 4, Summer 2017