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Trump’s budget is everything scientists have been fearing

The outline cuts at least $7 billion for research on climate change, diseases, and energy.

Brian Resnick / Vox
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The top-line numbers of President Donald Trump’s budget proposal should give the nation’s scientists shivers. The administration doesn’t seem to think science should be a priority at all.

The blueprint released today is preliminary. The administration still needs to draft a full budget, which we won’t see until May. And ultimately, it’s up to Congress to decide who gets what.

But what’s important about this budget proposal is that it tells the public and Congress where the president’s concerns lie. And they don’t appear to be issues like climate change, disease treatment and prevention, or basic research funding for universities.

In all, we count up least $7 billion in reductions to science programs, including:

  • A $5.8 billion reduction in funding to the National Institutes of Health (18 percent of its total budget.) Most of the NIH’s budget goes to funding research in health care in universities across the country.
  • A $102 million cut to NASA’s Earth science programs, eliminating four NASA Earth science missions completely:
  1. PACE — a program for measuring changes to ocean ecosystems by tracking concentrations of chlorophyll (what makes algae green) from space.
  2. OCO-3 — a yet-to-be-launched space station module to track atmospheric carbon dioxide.
  3. DSCOVR — the “deep space climate observatory,” which is partially run by NOAA. (The budget doesn’t mention if NOAA will retain this program.) DSCOVR is an early warning system for solar storms, and has capabilities to detect changes in levels of ozone and other pollutants in the atmosphere.
  4. CLARREO Pathfinder — the “Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory.” It’s set to be launched in 2020 to amass highly accurate records of climate change on Earth so scientists can make more precise predictions about the future.
  • A $900 million reduction in the Energy Department’s basic science research. The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy — a $300 million program that provides grants for energy research — is wholly eliminated because “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research.”
  • A $250 million cut in NOAA grants “and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education including Sea Grant.”
  • And not to mention the many changes coming for the EPA and how the country combats climate change. Vox’s Brad Plumer has more on that here.

Scientists are getting a clear negative message: Their work isn’t valued. “The Trump administration’s proposed budget would cripple the science and technology enterprise through short-sighted cuts to discovery science programs and critical mission agencies alike,” Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the nation’s largest science advocacy organization, said in a statement.

Funding for the National Science Foundation? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

It’s important to note that this budget blueprint makes no mention of the $7.5 billion that funds the National Science Foundation, a major funder of basic science research in universities around the country. But, overall, the Trump administration is seeking to cut 10 percent of the budget of non-defense discretionary spending. The NSF falls into that category.

Some science programs are largely safe

The Trump administration is proposing $900 million for the US Geological Survey (down slightly from Obama-era levels of around $1 billion). The administration is also committing to funding NASA’s interplanetary research at $1.9 billion — though it does nix a program to land a spacecraft on Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon. (Last year, Obama requested $1.4 billion for interplanetary research.) Trump’s budget also pledges $500 million to help treat opioid addiction,and will keep research grant funding at the USDA intact.

And some programs at the NIH will be protected. The 21st Century Cures Act provides guaranteed funding for “moonshot” programs researching cancer, mapping the brain, and precision medicine.

Also noteworthy: The budget proposed cuts to NASA’s Earth science program, but not extreme cuts. “It’s only about 6 or 7 percent,” Matt Hourihan, the director of budget and policy programs at the AAAS, says. “It’s somewhat surprising.”

Why cutting the NIH will slow the pace of science across the country

But overall, these cuts, especially the NIH figures, would strain scientific research innovation and critically important data collection in the United States.

“Mr Trump's budget fails to recognize the critical role that NIH research has played in saving the lives of millions of Americans suffering with disease, as well as countless soldiers who were the beneficiaries of medical breakthroughs that started as research grants funded by the NIH,” Benjamin Corb, public affairs director of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, said in a statement.

Already, competition for NIH grants is intense. Its funding has basically plateaued over the past decade. At the same time, the cost of research keeps increasing, and an ever-growing pool of PhDs is competing for a relatively smaller pile of grant money.

Consider this: In 2000, more than 30 percent of NIH grant applications got approved. Today, it’s closer to 17 percent. It’s not crazy math: The less money there is to go around, the fewer projects get funded.

According to Hourihan, when the NIH’s budget dropped 5 percent from sequestration cuts, they had to cut around 700 individual grants (out of about 9,000). With a 20 percent cut, “we’re likely talking about [grant] cuts in the hundreds, if not the thousands,” he says.

The effects of these cuts ripple outward. Many researchers rely on federal funding from the NIH or NSF — not just to fund their projects, but also to pay their salaries. The federal government funds some 60 percent of all scientific research in the country. When it becomes less generous, there are fewer opportunities for budding PhDs to start their careers.

As a 2014 piece in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences put it: "The current system is in perpetual disequilibrium, because it will inevitably generate an ever-increasing supply of scientists vying for a finite set of research resources and employment opportunities." And that was written while Obama was in office. Now, those resources could be winnowed further.

What to look for in the coming weeks

We’ll have a better picture of the future of science funding when the Trump administration releases a full budget request in May. In that document, we’ll be able to see what funds will be allocated for the National Science Foundation, for instance. And we’ll see where priorities are shifting in individual departments. How will changes at NIH effect research for individual diseases like Alzheimer’s, diabetes, or cancer? We don’t yet now.

Again, and this is important to stress, this all is going to have to pass through Congress. And there’s a good chance it won’t, since funding biomedical research typically isn’t a partisan issue. The 21st Century Cures Act, which increased the NIH’s budget by around $4 billion, passed with 94 percent of the Senate vote and got 344 votes in the House.

The big question now: Will many of these same legislators now decrease funding for other kinds of scientific research?

Overall, the Trump administration is seeking to cut 10 percent of the nation’s non-defense discretionary spending. The hard truth is that even if these proposed cuts don’t make it through, any reduction in discretionary spending is likely to cut into science. (One source of potential optimism: The Department of Defense, which Trump hopes to bolster, is also a major funder of university research).

And we should note: The Trump administration crafted this budget with a very thin staffing of top science positions. Trump has yet to pick a White House science adviser, a NASA administrator, a director of the CDC, and so on. A Washington Post report revealed that Trump has only nominated one of the 46 Senate-confirmable science posts in the administration.

It’s unclear who — if anyone — is advocating on behalf of science in the Trump administration. This budget blueprint shows it.

“Make no mistake: These numbers would be crippling to much of the federal science apparatus,” Hourihan says.