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Donald J. Trump

Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

NIH, DOE Office of Science face deep cuts in Trump's first budget

President Donald Trump's first budget request to Congress, to be released at 7 a.m. Thursday, will call for cutting the 2018 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by $6 billion, or nearly 20%, according to sources familiar with the proposal. The Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science would lose $900 million, or nearly 20% of its $5 billion budget. The proposal also calls for deep cuts to the research programs at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a 5% cut to NASA's earth science budget. And it would eliminate DOE's roughly $300 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

There appears to be no mention, however, of the National Science Foundation (NSF) in a 62-page document outlining the proposal obtained by The Washington Post. NSF's budget request may not become clear until the White House fleshes out the details of its spending plan over the next 2 months.

The NIH proposal is drawing deep concern from biomedical research advocates. "A $6 billion cut to [NIH] is unacceptable to the scientific community, and should be unacceptable to the American public as well," said Benjamin Corb, public affairs director of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, Maryland, in a statement. "President Donald Trump's fiscal year 2018 spending plan erases years' worth of bipartisan support for the NIH, and the American biomedical research enterprise which has long been the global leader for biomedical innovation. Cuts this deep threaten America's ability to remain a leader. It is of grave concern to the research community that President Trump's budget proposal—which would fund the agency at a 15-year low—values investments in defense above all other federal expenditures."

NIH's budget was roughly $32 billion in 2016, and was set to receive a $1 billion to $2 billion increase in the 2017 fiscal year, which began this past 1 October. Congress has been unable to finish its 2017 spending plan, however, and the government has been operating under a continuing resolution that freezes spending at 2016 levels.

According to The Washington Post's Amy Goldstein:

The spending plan calls for a “major reorganization” of the 27 NIH institutes and centers, though it does not spell out the changes—with one exception. It would abolish the Fogarty International Center, a $69.1 million program dedicated to building partnerships between health research institutions in the United States and other countries. The plan also would fold into NIH the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a free-standing agency within HHS devoted to fostering research evidence to improve health care’s quality, safety and accessibility.

At DOE, the department's nuclear weapons programs would grow, while science programs would shrink, reports Steve Mufson of The Washington Post:

The president’s budget would cut spending overall by $1.7 billion — or 5.6 percent from current levels — to $28 billion. But the money is redistributed. The National Nuclear Security Administration budget would grow 11.3 percent while the rest of the Energy Department’s programs would be cut by 17.9 percent. 

The Office of Science would lose $900 million of its just-over $5 billion. The office supports research at more than 300 universities and 10 of the nation’s 17 national labs.

At NASA, a roughly $100 million to cut to the agency's earth sciences program would be mostly achieved by canceling four climate-related missions, according to sources. They are the Orbiting Carbon ­Observatory-3; the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem program; the Deep Space Climate Observatory; and the CLARREO Pathfinder. Overall, NASA receives a 1% cut.

Even before the scope of the cuts became known, it was a safe bet that Trump's request would leave scientists wanting more—not just more funding, but more details on how he wants to spend the money.

White House officials are calling the 2018 document a budget “blueprint” to distinguish it from the comprehensive document they have promised to submit to Congress in 2 months. Trump himself leaked the big news last month: He will ask for $54 billion more for the military, and pay for it with $54 billion in cuts to domestic discretionary spending. That category includes all research programs outside the defense agencies.

Mick Mulvaney, new director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told reporters yesterday that the so-called skinny budget fleshes out what the president promised during the campaign and since taking office. “This is an 'America First' budget,” said Mulvaney, a former Republican congressman from South Carolina. “We went through his speeches, and we turned those policies into numbers.”

Of course, there’s a lot that Trump has not talked about, including almost all of the government’s $70 billion investment in civilian research. And that suggests today’s budget may be silent on, or vague about, what the president is seeking for some science agencies, much less for specific programs and cross-agency initiatives. In some cases, agency heads will apparently be asked to figure out how to absorb the cuts if they are approved by Congress, by cutting programs, or staff, or both.

Mulvaney did promise the request would contain “a [top] number for each agency,” as well as highlights of how it differs from past years. But the only science agency he flagged was NASA (and avoided mention of NIH). Its current budget of $19.5 billion would drop by 1%, he said, which he characterized as “a small reduction.” At the same time, he added, some NASA programs would get a boost, including a planetary mission to a moon “of either Saturn or Jupiter, I can’t remember.” Space experts are betting that’s a reference to continued work toward a multibillion-dollar mission to Europa, a jovian moon, in search of extraterrestrial life in its ice-covered oceans.

Indeed, that 1% decline at NASA might seem like manna from heaven compared to what environmental and climate scientists are expecting. Media have reported that Trump will request cuts of 40% in science programs at EPA and 26% to the main research arm of NOAA. The request is also likely to zero out several EPA and NOAA programs that fund competitive grants for university-based researchers. Mulvaney suggested such proposed cuts reflect the fact that those activities “don’t align with the president’s position on global warming and alternative energy” technologies.

But those reductions aren’t due only to the president’s ideological distaste for that research. They also contribute to the $54 billion cut that Trump needs to offset his proposed rise in military spending, to $603 billion, in the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October.

To reach that defense spending goal, however, Congress will need to agree to change to change a 2011 law, known as the Budget Control Act (BCA), that places binding caps on defense and nondefense discretionary spending, which accounts for roughly one-third of the $3.5 trillion that the federal government spends annually. (The other two-thirds goes to entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, other kinds spending required by law, and paying interest on the national debt.) Changing the BCA could be a heavy political lift, however, requiring 60 votes in the Senate. And, in general, White House budget requests are just one of many factors that Congress considers as it exercises its constitutional authority to set spending levels. Lawmakers from both parties have already expressed skepticism about some of the cuts Trump has proposed, and the NIH cuts will likely face stiff opposition. Congress won’t decide final numbers until late this year.