Read our COVID-19 research and news.

ARPA-E, set up to fund high-risk research on solar and other energy technologies, could face elimination.

Dennis Schroeder/NREL

Research is an afterthought in first Trump budget

The 2018 budget proposal that President Donald Trump unveiled last week confirms two things that U.S. scientists have long suspected: The new president is no fan of research, and his administration has no overarching strategy for funding science.

Deep proposed cuts to research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Energy (DOE), the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offer evidence that Trump doesn’t see science—of any kind—as a spending priority. And along with neglect there’s indifference. The budget blueprint says nothing about spending at the National Science Foundation (NSF), for example. It’s also silent on the research portfolios of the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, although science advocates are not sanguine about their prospects.

Trump’s vision for the 2018 fiscal year that begins on 1 October is outlined in a 62-page “skinny budget” that will be fleshed out in May. But it may never come to pass. Senior members of both the Senate and House of Representatives appropriations committees have already voiced grave doubts about the NIH cuts, for instance, and Democrats have unanimously decried the proposed assaults on environmental research. Even so, Trump’s plan demonstrates that selling the White House on the value of research to the country could be a formidable challenge.

“We are disheartened and significantly concerned by the proposal, which clearly devalues science and research,” says Christine McEntee, who leads the American Geophysical Union in Washington, D.C. “If enacted, [it] would be a step backward for scientific progress.”

“The unprecedented budget cuts … would cripple the nation’s ability to support and deliver the important biomedical research that provides hope to all,” warns Darrell G. Kirch, head of the Association of American Medical Colleges in Washington, D.C.

The plan covers $1.1 trillion in discretionary spending. (The more detailed May budget will also cover changes to mandatory social welfare programs and interest payments on the national debt.) The discretionary pot is now roughly split between defense and nondefense agencies. But Trump wants to hike spending on defense and national security by 10%, and pay for that $54 billion increase by cutting spending at all other agencies. To get there, Trump would cut nearly 20% at NIH and DOE science programs, and make even larger research reductions at EPA and NOAA. In contrast, NASA overall would receive only a 1% cut, although its earth sciences division would shrink by 6%.

News of some cuts leaked before the budget’s formal release. But the NIH and DOE numbers came as a shock to many. Shock is mixed with confusion for USGS officials, who have been told only that the agency would receive “more than $900 million” in 2018 compared with its current budget of $1.06 billion.

NIH officials have more to worry about than the size of the cut. There was also vague language about “a major reorganization” of its 27 institutes and centers and a call to “reduce administrative costs and rebalance Federal contributions to research funding.”

That language offers clues about how the White House might have arrived at the proposed cut. Trump’s $5.8 billion reduction is roughly equivalent to what NIH spent last year to reimburse universities for the so-called indirect costs of research, which include overhead items like utility bills and the staff needed to comply with federal research regulations. Some speculate that the White House wants to reduce those indirect payments in hopes of saving money without reducing the amount of research that NIH funds. But university officials have long maintained that they could not afford to accept NIH grants if the government didn’t also pay reasonable overhead costs.

Indirect costs are so contentious that last year Congress created an advisory board within the White House to examine the payments and related regulatory issues. But Trump’s budget proposal seems to circumvent that process, which has not yet begun.

Some research agencies didn’t even get a number to react to. NSF may be the biggest supporter of basic research in many academic disciplines, but agency officials have no idea whether Trump wants to raise or lower their current $7.5 billion budget.

There is a line in a budget table covering “other agencies” that, like NSF, do not fall within a Cabinet-level department. That catchall designation applies to scores of entities, although NSF is by far the largest and makes up roughly one-quarter of the group’s overall budget of $29.4 billion. Trump wants to slice that amount by 10%, in part by eliminating 19 of the agencies. But many of those targets—including the $1.1 billion Corporation for National and Community Service that funds the AmeriCorps national service program, as well as the national endowments for the arts and for the humanities, each of which now receives $148 million—have powerful friends in Congress. So NSF could take a substantial hit if lawmakers preserve those agencies while also agreeing to Trump’s overall cuts.

Congress likely won’t make any final decisions about the 2018 budget before late this year. In the meantime, scientists have a more immediate concern—the fate of this year’s research budgets. Every agency is now under a spending freeze that took effect last fall after Congress failed to pass a budget for 2017. That freeze, called a continuing resolution (CR), blocks any spending increases or new initiatives, including an already negotiated bipartisan plan to boost NIH funding by up to $2 billion.

The current CR expires on 28 April, and Congress must act to avoid a government shutdown. But Trump’s budget complicates its task by proposing to reshuffle how 2017 dollars are allocated. Specifically, the president wants to add $25 billion for defense and subtract $18 billion from civilian programs. If Congress agrees, those cuts would certainly take another bite out of nondefense research.

To get his 2017 defense increase, Trump needs to persuade Congress to obliterate a firm cap on both defense and civilian spending set by a 2011 law. Democrats, however, have promised to block changes to that law unless the new spending agreement benefits civilian as well as defense programs. And some Republicans oppose any rise in spending.

Those opposing political forces create the perfect conditions for legislative gridlock. As a result, observers think it’s increasingly likely that the current spending freeze could be extended for the rest of the 2017 fiscal year—and perhaps well into 2018, a prospect that researchers are likely to find far preferable to Trump’s drastic plan.

All this legislative maneuvering is occurring without any input from key executive branch science appointees. That’s because Trump has yet to nominate anyone to fill dozens of research-related slots. He hasn’t even said whether he’ll preserve the job of presidential science adviser, or make use of the congressionally mandated Office of Science and Technology Policy that, by tradition, his science adviser directs.

Whether the voice of a science champion in the White House could have won a reprieve for science in Trump’s 2018 blueprint, however, is an open question.