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Trump’s plan to reshuffle government strikes familiar notes

President Donald Trump today proposed reorganizing parts of the federal government in ways that should sound very familiar to those who follow U.S. science policy. In fact, many of the ideas that would impact the research community have been floated by previous administrations—Democratic as well as Republican—and some are less bold than what his predecessors had hoped to achieve.

Of course, the fact that they appear in the 132-page document unveiled this afternoon by the White House also means they were never embraced by Congress and did not go into effect. And many observers doubt Trump will fare much better in realizing his proposed changes than his predecessors.

The plan, labeled “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century,” would affect federal research agencies in ways great and small. Here are highlights from that document, along with some background and preliminary reactions from the communities most affected.

Move the Department of Commerce’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to the Department of the Interior (DOI), and merge it with DOI’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). This idea, which has been proposed in various forms over the past few decades, is aimed at streamlining the administration of two major environmental laws—the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The White House notes that the “jurisdictions under these two laws is generally split based on habitat type, with FWS covering species that spend time on land or in inland fisheries, while NMFS covers mostly marine species. This split jurisdiction … creates a confusing permitting landscape for project proponents.” Dam operators, for example, often have to seek permits from both agencies to operate their facilities.

In 2012, then-President Barack Obama proposed a more sweeping version of this merger, which would have involved moving NMFS as well as its entire parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from the Commerce Department to DOI. But the effort never gained headway.

Conservation groups are not wild about the idea. Although there might be efficiencies to be gained in a merger, “there are also a lot of benefits to having divided authority among executive branch agencies,” says Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity in Washington, D.C. “One agency can help check an egregious mistake by another.” Hartl also questions the motives behind the proposal. White House officials are “not proposing this because they love endangered species,” he says, but rather because the current “division of power makes it harder to railroad decisions through one agency.”

Give the National Science Foundation (NSF) authority to run all federal graduate fellowship programs. In 2013, the Obama White House proposed that step—and much more—as part of a sweeping reorganization of the government’s $3 billion science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education portfolio across more than a dozen federal agencies. Trump’s would be limited to graduate research fellowships, and take advantage of NSF’s 65 years of expertise to gain efficiencies by shrinking or eliminating staff at other agencies offering similar fellowships.

The reshuffling came as a surprise to NSF officials. And the agency won’t get any more money, notes NSF Director France Cordova. She says agency officials are now looking at seven or eight agencies that run programs much smaller than NSF’s prestigious Graduate Research Fellowships, begun in 1952, which this year gave 2000 students grants for 3 years of graduate study. She calls it a “shared service model” aimed at “streamlining government services.”

Critics of the Obama plan argued that the fellowships are meant to strengthen the scientific workforce in a variety of disciplines and that a program run by the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, serves a different audience and may need to be run differently from fellowships offered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “Nobody complains about every agency operating its own research programs,” notes Kei Koizumi, a former Obama science staffer now at AAAS [which publishes ScienceInsider] in Washington, D.C. “So why can’t people see the value of agency-based graduate fellowships?”

Move the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) applied energy programs into a new Office of Energy Innovation that would also absorb the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). DOE’s research activities are now generally organized by energy source, with programs focused on nuclear, fossil, and renewable energy sources funding the relevant applied research. ARPA-E was added to this mix in 2009 to translate promising findings from basic research, which is funded separately by the Office of Science, into budding technology.

Advocates say the current structure allows DOE to match its applied investments to the highest-priority needs within each energy sector. But the White House plan echoes critics who say the structure has led to fragmented fiefdoms. DOE’s “entrenched” structure “parallels the stakeholder community,” the plan states, “and thus the programs can be influenced by the strongly held beliefs of the technology and fuel champions of their respective areas, which have biases that are often counter to identifying solutions that are good for the Nation as a whole.” Merging the applied programs into a single structure “has the potential to reduce a practice of picking energy technology winners and losers and pitting fuel types against one another for Government funding and attention,” the proposal states.

The plan envisions research projects competing against each other for funding, irrespective of energy source. “Rather than presupposing the fraction of the budget necessary for certain energy technologies or sources. … [A]ll R&D would be required to compete for resources in the new environment, which would drive the best projects to the top of the list for limited resources …”

David Hart, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, says "the proposal is complex and will take awhile to digest, so I don’t want to offer an overarching positive or negative assessment." But he finds "the objective of greater integration across fuel types is worthy, as is the concept of systemic analysis and coordinated strategic action to pursue systemic objectives." But he believes "integrating ARPA-E into the proposed innovation office is a bad idea," and wonders if the intended effect is to kill the program. And he says Trump administration budget proposals, which have proposed cutting or eliminating some of the late-stage research and development programs involved in the proposed reorganization, "give me pause in considering how the proposed reorganization would operate in practice. It’s worth noting that Congress specifically and forcefully rejected this concept."

NASA would accelerate the process of deciding whether one or more of its nine government-owned research centers should be converted into a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC). The Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is now the only FFRDC in NASA’s portfolio. The Trump proposal cites a 2004 analysis that suggested converting NASA centers to FFRDCs because of their perceived ability to work better with the private sector and respond rapidly to research needs.

Bobby Braun, dean of engineering at the University of Colorado in Boulder and NASA’s former chief technologist, thinks it’s a good idea because FFRDCs have much more flexibility. “The NASA centers are constrained by federal government hiring and personnel practices,” he says. The proposal asks that NASA conduct an analysis and deliver recommendations to the White House by August.

Move the Bureau of Labor Statistics into the Department of Commerce and yoke it to the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which are already within the Commerce Department. There are 13 principal federal statistical agencies, but these three are the largest. Putting then under one roof, the Trump plan asserts, would save money, improve data quality, and reduce the burden on businesses and the public from answering the surveys they conduct.

At the same time, White House officials say there are risks. The consolidation could damage the “accuracy, objectivity, reliability, and integrity” of the data collected if the reshuffling erodes public trust in those statistical exercises, the plan notes.

The responsibility for ensuring food safety, now divided between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), would fall to a new entity within USDA, a Federal Food Safety Agency. USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service now oversees meat, poultry, processed egg products, and catfish, whereas FDA inspects all other food products and their production facilities. That system is inefficient and unnecessary, according to the plan. Some 5000 “full-time equivalent” FDA employees and $1.3 billion in FDA funding would be merged with 9200 people and $1 billion in USDA resources to form the new center.

Jennifer Kuzma, a social scientist who co-directs the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, likes the idea—not a new one—of housing food safety within one agency but questions whether USDA’s mission to promote agriculture industry makes it a good fit. An agency dedicated to protecting public health or the environment would make more sense, she says.

Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who has proposed consolidating food safety programs in a new independent agency, not under USDA, criticized the White House proposal. “The Trump administration’s proposal does not have the best interests of consumers at its core," she said in a statement. "Under this administration, the USDA has been tasked with promoting the interests of big agribusinesses instead of all Americans, and their proposal makes it clear that food safety will continue to take a backseat to those corporate interests.”

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is only mentioned in an appendix to the plan, which calls for “restructure[ing] … NIH’s administrative functions to ensure operations are efficient and efficient.” NIH officials have already begun working on these streamlining efforts.

Another change would create three new institutes at NIH by folding in three agencies focused on health care research, occupational safety, and disability research that are now located elsewhere in the Department of Health and Human Services. Trump proposed such a merger in his 2019 budget request to Congress. But last week the House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over the agency rejected the idea in a draft spending bill that must still work its way through Congress.

Updated, 6/22/2018, 4:20 p.m.: This story has been updated with new information about the NSF reorganization and comments from David Hart and Representative Rosa DeLauro.