President Donald Trump hasn’t objected to a congressional rescue of NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which he has proposed killing.

NASA WFIRST Project/Dominic Benford from Michael Lentz/Brooke Hsu

White House sends mixed messages on 2020 research spending bills

President Donald Trump doesn’t want Congress to boost the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the National Science Foundation (NSF). But he has no objection to giving more research dollars to parts of the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA.

A series of letters this month from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to the Democratic chairwoman of the spending panel in the U.S. House of Representatives paints that seemingly contradictory picture of the Trump administration’s views of federal support for basic research. It confirms the suspicions of critics who say Trump doesn’t recognize the value of research and lacks any overarching philosophy on federal investments in the sector. That ambiguity, they say, could also complicate efforts to protect science in negotiations with congressional Democrats in the coming months over a budget for the 2020 fiscal year, which starts on 1 October.

In March, for the third year in a row, Trump asked Congress to make massive cuts to the budget of almost every federal research agency. That request was part of his broader attempt to shrink spending on civilian programs while increasing support for the military and homeland security.

Republican and Democratic legislators alike have reversed those cuts in the past two fiscal years, and in March they vowed to take similar actions for 2020. This month, House Democrats began to move bills containing generous increases for many of those agencies. For example, one bill would give NIH an additional $2 billion rather than impose a $5 billion reduction on its $39 billion budget. Another bill would raise NSF’s budget by 7%, to $8.6 billion, rather than have it plunge by 12.5%.

Every administration weighs in on the substance of important legislation as it moves through Congress, with comments addressed to the relevant legislator. Accordingly, OMB’s letters this year have gone to Representative Nita Lowey (D–NY), who chairs the House Committee on Appropriations. And although the letters reaffirm key concepts in the president’s budget request, OMB’s choice of which research programs to highlight appears almost random. In addition, there are significant differences in how OMB has reacted to similar actions taken by Congress both last year and this year.

NIH boosts “unsustainable”

The proposed NIH increase is a prime example. The pending spending bill for NIH contains “the fifth consecutive $2-billion increase” for NIH, acting OMB Director Russell Vought told Lowey in a 7 May letter. That “is unsustainable and incompatible with the Administration’s effort to focus resources on high-priority research,” Vought argued. Last year, however, OMB raised no objections when legislators proposed giving NIH a similar increase, which was adopted with broad bipartisan support. Supporters wonder what’s changed.

NSF advocates are unhappy with OMB’s criticism of any increase for that agency. On 21 May, Vought chastised Lowey for embracing “the misguided notion that increases to defense spending must be matched or exceeded by increases to non-defense spending.” Giving NSF $1.6 billion more than the president had proposed is a manifestation of that “misguided” view, he wrote. “This unrequested funding undermines the administration’s intent to keep non-defense spending in check,” Vought asserted.

In this case, however, OMB has not changed its tune. In June 2018 it wrote to the Republican chairman of the Senate appropriations committee complaining about legislators adding $600 million to the president’s 2019 request for NSF. Congress eventually ignored that objection, too.

The spending bill that funds NSF also covers NASA. But the $850 million that legislators want to add to Trump’s request for space science programs apparently isn’t a problem for OMB. Vought’s letter does not even mention it. Instead, Vought faults the Democratic-led panel for “providing far less funding than is needed to support the administration’s goal of a near-term human lunar landing,” a reference to Trump’s recent goal of returning astronauts to the moon by 2024.

One day earlier, Vought showed a similar ambivalence toward energy research in a letter to Lowey about spending levels for DOE. Vought had nothing to say about the committee’s decision to add nearly $1.4 billion to the president’s request for DOE’s Office of Science, turning a $1.1 billion proposed cut into a $285 million increase for the $6.5 billion office. But he attacked a $60 million boost for the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a $366 million DOE agency that supports research on tough energy problems with potentially huge commercial payoffs.

“The administration is disappointed that the bill does not eliminate ARPA-E,” Vought wrote to Lowey on 20 May about the 10-year-old agency Trump has tried for 3 years to shutter. “It makes little strategic sense that ARPA-E still exists independent of DOE’s main applied research programs.”

The letters to date have had no impact on legislators: One day after they were sent, the House Appropriations Committee approved two bills without altering the level of funding for NIH, NSF, and ARPA-E. But the letters do lay down a marker in what are expected to be contentious negotiations over the 2020 budget.

“Was Kelvin shut out?”

The OMB letters have raised the question of what role, if any, the president’s science adviser, Kelvin Droegemeier, is playing in budget policy. Droegemeier has largely avoided the issue of federal spending in public interactions with the U.S. research community since becoming director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in January. Science lobbyists say that’s no surprise, given the bad hand that he’s been dealt.

Instead, Droegemeier prefers to talk about the nation’s overall investment in research, for which industry provides the lion’s share. “We have priorities that were articulated in the 2020 budget request,” Droegemeier told a pro-science audience at a meeting held earlier this month at the Washington, D.C., headquarters of AAAS, which publishes ScienceInsider. He cited investments in artificial intelligence, quantum information science, and advanced manufacturing, areas that bolster what the Trump administration calls the “industries of the future.”

“But if we only focus on that, we’re missing the bigger picture,” Droegemeier added. “When you leverage the federal investment of more than $130 billion against everything else, we have a really spectacularly powerful [research] enterprise.”

Through an OSTP spokesperson, Droegemeier declined to say whether he supports OMB’s criticism of the pending funding levels for NIH and NSF. He also refused to say whether he had weighed in on drafts of the OMB letters, known to Washington, D.C., insiders as a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP).

The process of developing an SAP begins by compiling a list of all the congressional language and funding levels that don’t conform to the president’s request, explains Kei Koizumi, a visiting scholar at AAAS and a former senior adviser to the OSTP director under former President Barack Obama. “The priorities are set by OMB leadership,” he adds, “and then the SAP is circulated to OSTP and other White House offices.”

The political dynamic was different for much of Obama’s term because Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, he says. “We were usually asking [Congress] to put things back in,” he notes. “But in this administration, I would expect OSTP to be doing the opposite, in other words, asking ‘Can we not say we’re opposed to the increases for NIH and NSF?’”

Joel Widder, a Washington, D.C., lobbyist with a roster of academic and research institutions, decries the way that most science programs are treated in the OMB letters. “It’s not a good sign,” says Widder, who has worked at NSF and for Congress. “Was Kelvin shut out?”