President Donald Trump has translated his campaign promise to “make America great again” into his administration’s first blueprint for federal investment in science and technology.
The White House today issued a four-page memo telling federal agencies that their research dollars should be focused on delivering short-term dividends in strengthening national defense and border security, the economy, and “energy dominance,” as well as improving public health. It says achieving those goals should not require additional spending, and that agencies should focus primarily on basic science, and then step aside as quickly as possible to let industry pursue any results that show commercial promise.
The memo, written jointly by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), is an annual reminder of the administration’s research priorities sent to agencies before they submit their next budget request. Those requests are due next month for the 2019 fiscal year that starts in October 2018. (Congress has yet to act on the budget for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins 1 October; most observers expect lawmakers to extend current spending levels well into the new fiscal year.)
The memos typically don’t change much from year to year. But this is the first one from the new Trump administration. And it comes even as the White House lacks a presidential science adviser and OSTP director. It’s co-signed by OMB Director Mick Mulvaney and Michael Kratsios, a deputy assistant to the president, who since March has also been acting as OSTP's head.
The memo lists five priority areas (in this order): military superiority, security, prosperity, energy dominance, and health. Each is prefaced by the word “American” in keeping with the administration’s approach to branding issues.
The phrase “basic research” appears only in connection with prosperity, the third target area. Agencies are told to “continue, and expand where necessary, efforts to focus on basic research” to promote “emerging technologies such as autonomous systems, biometrics, energy storage, gene editing, machine learning, and quantum computing.” Even then, however, agencies are directed to “reduce funding overlaps with industry in later-stage research, development, and deployment of [these] technologies.”
In the health arena, the memo says “agencies should prioritize research focused on solutions for an aging population, as well as on combating drug addiction and other public health crises.” It also lists research “that will lead to more efficient and effective healthcare.”
Beyond the obvious differences with Obama’s approach, this guidance also doesn’t have a lot of similarities with President Trump’s own 2018 budget request.
The guidance on energy says the goal of federal research investments should be “a consistent, long-term supply of lower-cost American energy.” That goal, it asserts, can be achieved through “a clean energy portfolio composed of fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy sources.”
It should be no surprise that Trump’s list differs markedly from previous memos from the Barack Obama administration. Obama’s top five multiagency research priorities for his 2017 budget, for example, were global climate change, clean energy, Earth observations, advanced manufacturing, and innovation in the life sciences, biology, and neuroscience. Three items on that list—climate research, Earth observations, and advanced manufacturing—are completely absent from Trump’s priorities. So are biology-based initiatives pushed by Obama, including the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies Initiative and the Precision Medicine Initiative.
The initial reaction from some veteran federal budget watchers is bemusement. “Beyond the obvious differences with Obama’s approach, this guidance also doesn’t have a lot of similarities with President Trump’s own 2018 budget request,” says Matthew Hourihan, who analyzes federal research spending for AAAS in Washington, D.C. (which publishes ScienceInsider). Hourihan contrasted the memo’s focus on support for breakthrough military technologies, technology to prevent terror attacks, and helping older Americans remain healthy with the large cuts for those same areas that Trump has proposed.
Hourihan says the budget guidance’s support for so-called “precommercial technology” in energy would suggest the administration would support for the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, whose mission is to explore promising ideas too risky for industry. Yet Trump has asked Congress to shut down the $300 million agency, launched in 2009. (The Senate has balked at that idea.)
Kei Koizumi, who headed OSTP’s research analysis shop during the Obama administration and is now at AAAS, says the memo is consistent with Trump’s emphasis in his 2018 budget on “defense first, security second, with the economy, energy, and health after that.” But he notes that it is silent on many important activities, including support for international collaborations and for training the next generation of scientists apart from improving the technical skills of the overall U.S. workforce. “There’s also no mention of space,” he notes, despite the recent relaunching of the National Space Council. In his view, “the memo shows that the administration doesn't have science and technology priorities as such.”