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President Donald Trumps administration has proposed killing NASAs Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. But Congress seems intent on funding it.


First take: Trump’s 2019 budget not as disastrous for science as it first appears

It’s a familiar tune, but with a surprise twist.

President Donald Trump today unveiled a 2019 budget request that—once again—calls for eliminating numerous federal research programs, including a fleet of NASA satellites, energy research efforts, and climate and environmental science programs.

But in a confusing supplemental document, the administration rescinded its original plan for deep cuts at many major research agencies. Instead, it is asking Congress to use a newfound pot of cash to maintain level funding for some of those agencies.

The switcheroo is primarily the result of a landmark budget deal that Congress reached last week to smash through mandated limits on military and civilian spending for the next 2 years. The pact will allow lawmakers to spend about $150 billion more than the caps allowed in the 2019 fiscal year that begins 1 October. (It also allows roughly $150 billion in additional spending for the 2018 fiscal year that began in October 2017, an exercise Congress has yet to complete.)

The original 2019 budget request was completed long before that deal with struck, however, forcing the White House to adhere to the existing spending caps. That triggered many of the same deep research cuts Trump called for in his 2018 request. After Congress lifted the caps, White House officials had 3 days to decide how they wanted to tweak their request to reflect the new budget reality.

The result is a series of documents that can leave readers with whiplash. In one place, the numbers suggest a bloodbath for science, including a 21% cut to overall basic research, a 27% cut at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a 29% cut to the National Science Foundation (NSF), and a 22% cut to the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science.

But the picture brightens when the last-minute addendum is factored in. For example, at NIH, NSF, and DOE, the requested cuts evaporate and are replaced with research budgets that are roughly flat at 2017 levels: $34.8 billion for NIH, $7.5 billion for NSF, and $5.4 billion for DOE’s science programs. (Congress could still approve higher numbers for 2018, which would then leave the 2019 request as a cut.)

Many research-related programs don’t get a reprieve, however. For example, the administration is repeating its 2018 call to eliminate DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, research programs at the Environmental Protection Agency, and research projects at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The request also calls for canceling five NASA earth science missions, including an operating Earth-facing camera on the Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite and the planned Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem satellite, set for launch in 2022, which would assess the ocean’s health and its interactions with the atmosphere.

In a move that shocked astronomers, the administration has proposed killing the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, its next big orbiting observatory, which is designed investigate the nature of dark energy and study exoplanets. NASA has been studying how to keep the mission’s costs, estimated at $3.6 billion, down, but outright cancellation has not been expected; after all, the telescope is the top decadal priority of astrophysics researchers. Such a move, tweeted David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University, would see the United States “abandoning its leadership in space astronomy.”

Congressional appropriators so far have largely rejected those changes in working up a 2018 budget, and Congress has the final say on federal spending. And because the administration’s request does not fully account for all of the $150 billion in additional money that Congress has allowed itself to spend in 2019, lawmakers should have plenty of room to add to 2019 research budgets if they desire. How much won’t be known until later this year, assuming Congress completes its work on the 12 appropriations bills by the start of the next fiscal year.

In the meantime, ScienceInsider will be bringing you more today, and in the days to come, on what the Trump budget could mean for research.