For the fourth straight year, President Donald Trump has proposed sizable reductions in federal research spending. To be sure, it’s no longer news that the president wants deep cuts to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and science programs at the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA. And in past years, Congress has rejected similar proposals and provided increases. But Trump’s 2021 request brings into sharper focus what his administration values across the research landscape—and what it views as unimportant.
During a 10 February teleconference on the research portion of the $4.8 trillion budget request, administration representatives refused to address the proposed cuts to many areas of basic research and instead highlighted the few bright spots for science. For example, when asked about research on climate change, a discipline targeted for cuts, White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier changed the subject. “We want to keep this focused on artificial intelligence [AI] and quantum information science [QIS],” he said—two fields the administration has selected for spending increases.
Droegemeier also insisted that the president’s overall request of $142 billion for research would be a 6% increase. In fact, it represents a 9% decline over 2020 spending; the 6% increase is based on Trump’s 2020 request, which Congress ignored.
No one from NIH, whose $42 billion budget makes it by far the government’s largest funder of basic research, was present at the briefing to defend Trump’s proposed $3 billion, 7% cut in biomedical research. And NSF Director France Córdova, who steps down on 31 March after completing her 6-year term, promised only that her $8 billion agency would “continue to support science and science education” despite facing a proposed cut of 6.5%.
The unquestionable stars of the show were research investments in what the Trump administration calls “industries of the future.” They consist of AI and QIS, as well as 5G communications, biotechnology, and advanced manufacturing. In particular, the administration wants to double federal spending on AI to nearly $2 billion, and on QIS to $860 million, over the next 2 years. “Together, [these fields] are vital to the nation’s global competitiveness and the health, prosperity, and security of the American people,” the budget proposal declares.
Many members of Congress share the administration’s passion for this small group of disciplines with direct commercial applications. Last month, the chair of the Senate science committee introduced a bipartisan bill with similar spending goals for these fields, and Michael Kratsios, the White House’s chief technology officer, praised it in testifying before the committee.
However, the president’s passion for increased spending on AI and QIS doesn’t extend to the rest of the physical sciences. A group of Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives last month proposed a 10-year doubling of the leading federal agencies that support the physical sciences—NSF, NASA, DOE’s Office of Science, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. But when asked whether he supported that proposal, Droegemeier said he doesn’t comment on pending legislation.
A sea of red ink
Most of the federal government’s major science funding agencies would see deep cuts under the 2021 request, but spending on a few programs would rise.
|Agency||2020 budget ($ billions)||2021 request ($ billions)||% change|
|DOE Office of Science||7||5.84||-16.6|
In fact, those agencies are headed in the opposite direction under Trump’s request. It proposes an $839 million cut in NASA’s $7.1 billion science directorate by killing the agency’s education programs, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, and two earth science missions aimed at collecting ocean and climate data. Congress has previously rejected those cuts.
Within the proposed 17% cut in DOE’s $7 billion Office of Science, fusion, high-energy physics, and biological and environmental research are hit especially hard, although no details were available at press time. And Trump has once again proposed eliminating the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, which this year received $425 million.
At NSF, polar research and the biology and geosciences directorates would be cut by double digits from 2019, and its flagship graduate research fellowship program would shrink by 20%, to 1600 annual slots. The budget would drop the U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS’s) primary cooperative research program with universities. That activity, which helps fund graduate students, is seen as “outside the core USGS mission.”
Droegemeier took the reins of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy in January 2019, and this is the first budget proposal he helped craft and had to defend. But little appears to have changed. In previous years, Trump had sought cuts of 13%, 21%, and 10% in federal spending on basic research, the subset of overall research that supports most academic scientists. And science lobbyists did not see this year’s 6% cut as much of an improvement.
“[It] falls far short of the investment needed to secure the United States’s position as the world’s preeminent economic power,” says Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “At a time when our global competitors are doubling down on investments in education and research, we can’t afford to fall behind.”
Advocates for biomedical research applauded stable funding in a few areas, notably research on pediatric cancer and pain, but disputed Trump’s assertion that his budget would improve the health of all Americans. “Overall, [his] budget would deal a devastating blow to patients and their families,” Mary Woolley, who leads Research!America, wrote in a statement. At NIH, the number of new and competing research grants would drop by 1874 from this year’s estimated 11,379.
Supporters of agricultural research were heartened by a boost of $175 million, to $600 million, for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) primary competitive grants program for universities. Most of the new money would go to AI-related research. Overall, R&D at USDA would be trimmed by $172 million, to $2.8 billion.
Congress will have the final say on spending for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October. But lawmakers will have less flexibility to boost science spending than in the recent past. A budget deal struck in July 2019 imposed tight caps on both civilian and defense spending. In particular, it allows only a $2.5 billion increase in domestic discretionary spending, or only 0.4% more than the $632 billion for this year. However, Trump’s new budget flouts that agreement by seeking to cut domestic spending by 7%, or some $45 billion.
With reporting by Adrian Cho, Jocelyn Kaiser, and David Malakoff.