Trump budget gives last-minute reprieve to science funding

Funding for the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health would hold steady after Congress agrees to lift spending caps, but details are fuzzy.
Copies of US budget request

The budget request from US President Donald Trump now heads to the Congress.Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty

On 12 February, US President Donald Trump released his budget proposal for the 2019 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October 2018. Nature’s US news team reports on what Trump’s budget would mean for US government science agencies.

National Institutes of Health

The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) US$34.8-billion budget would be roughly equal to the 2017 level, but about $2 billion below the 2018 level approved by Congress on 8 February. The 2019 proposal includes $9.2 billion added after Congress lifted mandatory spending caps for 2018 and 2019 last week.

But the 2019 budget might not be as steady as it seems, because the White House is calling for the creation of three new institutes within the NIH. They include a National Institute for Research on Safety and Quality, which would replace the $324-million Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Trump plan would also transfer the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research from the HHS’s Administration for Community Living, and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to the NIH from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The White House is also seeking to cap, at 90%, the percentage of salary that a scientist can draw from an NIH grant, and reduce the total salary amount that researchers can draw from federal grants. Last year, the Trump administration sought to limit the amount of overhead (known as indirect costs) that the NIH pays to grant recipients, but Congress rejected the idea.

The president’s plan would give the NIH an additional $750 million for research on the opioid crisis, $400 million of which must be spent on public-private partnerships to develop new treatments for pain and overdose.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The proposal would slash the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's (CDC) budget by 12%, to $5.6 billion, compared to the 2017 level. Part of this cut would be achieved by moving programmes into other agencies, such as transferring the CDC’s occupational-health activities to the NIH. But other agency programs would see funding levels slashed, including a 43% cut to the agency’s $1.4-billion Public Health Preparedness and Response Program.

Food and Drug Administration

The White House proposal seeks $3.3 billion for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), an increase of more than $460 million from 2017. The agency’s budget would rise to $5.8 billion when user fees paid by companies who submit drugs or devices to the FDA for review are added in.

The FDA would receive $10 million to speed the development of tools that could help stem the misuse and abuse of opioid drugs and treat opioid addiction.

National Science Foundation

The National Science Foundation (NSF) would receive $7.5 billion in 2019, keeping its funding flat compared to the 2017 level. But that figure includes $2.2 billion that the White House added to its NSF proposal at the last minute, after Congress agreed on 8 February to lift mandatory spending caps for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Trump’s original 2019 plan for NSF would have slashed the agency's budget by nearly 30%, to $5.3 billion.

The White House says that the extra $2.2 billion would support basic scientific research, education programmes, upgrades to research facilities in Antarctica and elsewhere, and two new, unspecified cross-disciplinary research activities. But it has not provided a detailed explanation of how that money would be spread across various programmes.

Trump’s modified proposal for 2019 would boost spending across the NSF’s 7 research directorates by 2%, to $6.15 billion. The original plan proposed cutting funding for that account by about 30%, to $4.23 billion, compared to the 2017 level of $6.01 billion. The Office of Polar Programs would have seen the smallest reduction — about 27%, to $342 million. The agency’s Office of Integrative Activities, which supports cross-disciplinary research, would have seen the largest cut. Its budget would have been slashed by nearly 38%, to $262 million.

The revised budget also proposes a 56% cut to the NSF account that supports the construction of research platforms and the acquisition of scientific instrumentation, including the agency’s suite of telescopes. That would reduce its funding from $215 million in 2017 to $95 million in 2019.


Trump would give NASA $19.9 billion in 2019, a 1.3% increase from the 2017 level. The agency’s science directorate would receive $5.9 billion, a 2.3% increase.

The White House wants to terminate funding for the International Space Station after 2024, when the current US commitment to the 15-nation project expires. That plan is unlikely to fly with many members of Congress; Bill Nelson, a Democratic senator from Florida, has said such a move would decimate his state’s commercial space industry and hinder experiments in low-Earth orbit. The Trump administration wants to explore turning space-station operations over to private industry starting in 2025, but it’s unclear how that transition might happen.

The proposed budget would also cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which is designed to hunt for exoplanets and dark matter. It has been planned as NASA’s next big astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope, which is due to launch next year. “Developing another large space telescope immediately after completing the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is not a priority for the Administration,” budget documents say.

A recent independent review found that costs for the WFIRST project could not be kept beneath the $3.2-billion cap set by NASA, and the agency has been working to revise the design to reduce the mission’s price. US astronomers ranked WFIRST the top large mission in a 2010 survey of science priorities for the next decade. ”It’s a bit of a shock,” says David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University in New Jersey who is co-chair of the WFIRST science team. “If a few people in the White House can override these decisions, why do a decadal survey at all?” Spergel says he plans to mobilize astronomers to petition lawmakers to restore funds for WFIRST. NASA will continue to work on the mission as the appropriations process plays out.

Also up for cancellation are five Earth-science missions or instruments that the Trump administration tried but failed to nix last year, after Congress disagreed. They include the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) Earth-observing mission, which is planned for a 2022 launch. The White House would also turn off the Earth-observing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) spacecraft, which capture full-disk images of Earth from about 1.6 million kilometres away. DSCOVR also provides alerts of incoming solar storms, but its Earth-imaging cameras – championed by former US vice-president Al Gore – have long been a political football. The other missions proposed for termination are the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder, and the Radiation Budget Instrument that NASA has already terminated. All together the cancellations would save $133 million in fiscal year 2019.

The budget proposes $1.78 billion for Earth science, a cut of 6%. It includes missions to launch this year such as the next set of GRACE gravity-measuring satellites, and ICESat-2 to measure polar ice.

Planetary sciences would get $2.24 billion, a 22% increase. That would include a robotic lunar discovery and exploration programme “that supports commercial partnerships and innovative approaches to achieving human and science exploration goals”, as well as continued support for a mission in 2020 to sample rocks on Mars, and another to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

Astrophysics would get $1.19 billion, a 12% cut. The White House plan would redirect money that would have been spent on WFIRST towards future missions and research. Heliophysics would get $691 million, a 2% increase.

Trump announced in December that he wanted to send astronauts back to the Moon, but the NASA budget does not contain enough of a boost to make that happen in the foreseeable future. The agency also currently does not have an administrator; Trump’s nomination of Jim Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, is being held up in the Senate.

Environmental Protection Agency

The White House proposal would cut the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget to $6.1 billion in 2019, its lowest level since the early 1990s and about 25% below the 2017 mark of $8.1 billion.

The budget would eliminate funding for climate-change research, and reorganize research programmes on subjects such as clean water, land preservation and healthy communities. In their place, the plan would allocate $112 million for a new line item called “core mission” and $357 million for “Rule of Law and Process.”

One theory is that the new categories will make it easier for the administration to move money around to support its priorities for the agency, regardless of how Congress apportions funding. “That gives [the administration] carte blanche to do whatever they want,” says Dan Costa, who headed the EPA’s air, climate and energy research programme before retiring in January. “It’s just more of the same.”

In a separate strategic plan released alongside the budget, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt emphasized the need to work with states and refocus the agency on core issues such as clean air, clean water, clean up of contaminated sites and chemical safety. Climate change did not receive a mention.

Department of Energy

The Department of Energy (DOE) would receive $30.6 billion, which is nearly 2% below its 2017 budget. Spending on nuclear weapons would continue to rise, but the department’s core research programmes would take a hit.

Funding for basic research at the DOE’s Office of Science would remain steady at $5.4 billion. That includes $1.2 billion added after Congress agreed last week to lift caps on the government’s spending in fiscal years 2018 and 2019.

Basic energy sciences would see a nearly 2% increase, to $1.85 billion, but the big winner would be advanced scientific computing, which would see its budget rise by nearly 42%, to $899 million.

The White House's original plan would have taken particular aim at the office of energy efficiency and renewable energy, by proposing to cut its funding by 65%, to $696 million. However, the revised Trump proposal adds back $120 million to the office, although it is not clear how that would be distributed.

The Trump administration is once again proposing to kill the Advanced Research Projects Agency—Energy (ARPA-E), which is designed to promote high-risk energy research. ARPA-E received $306 million in 2017, but Congress is split over its future. A House appropriations bill for 2018 would have eliminated the agency, while Senate appropriators approved a funding boost, to $330 million.

The White House budget would provide $502 million for fossil energy research, an increase of nearly 24%. The budget for nuclear energy would drop by nearly 30% to $757 million.

But the budget for nuclear weapons would keep rising. Within the National Nuclear Security Administration, funding for weapons activities would jump to more than $11 billion, an increase of roughly 19% compared to 2017. Funding for nuclear nonproliferation programmes would remain flat at nearly $1.9 billion, while the budget for cleanup activities would drop nearly 6%, to $5.6 billion.

Questions also remain about the US commitment to the nuclear-fusion project ITER, which is under construction at a site in St-Paul-lez-Durance, France. The project is over budget and behind schedule, and many lawmakers on Capitol Hill – and particularly in the Senate – want to halt US funding. The White House budget would provide $75 million for the project, compared to $50 million in 2017.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would see its budget slashed by 20%, to $4.6 billion, compared to the 2017 level of $5.7 billion.

The White House proposal would gut activities related to climate change across the agency, slashing spending by roughly $40 million. It would eliminate competitive grants for climate-change research, and end studies focused on better understanding how global warming is affecting the Arctic – among them, efforts to improve models of sea-ice and fisheries in a changing climate.

The Trump proposal also seeks to close NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory, based in College Park, Maryland, and end its studies of air chemistry and the atmospheric transport of mercury and other hazardous chemicals. The agency would also shutter the office that oversees the use of uncrewed aircraft for weather, polar and marine observations. And the White House is again looking to terminate the National Sea Grant College Program, which supports more than 30 US universities that conduct research, education and training about ocean and coastal topics.

All told, funding for NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would drop from $511 million in 2017 to $322 million in 2019 under the Trump plan.

US Geological Survey

The US Geological Survey (USGS) would receive nearly $860 million, a drop of roughly 21% from the 2017 level.

The White House would slash support for programmes that track natural hazards. Funding for programmes that monitor earthquakes and volcanoes would each drop by 21%, to $51 million and $22.3 million, respectively. Funding for the USGS water-resources programme, which includes the national stream-gauge network, would be reduced by 23%, to $165 million.

By contrast, mineral and energy resources would get $84.1 million, a 15% increase from the 2017 level. The budget describes a new initiative to help spur mineral-resource development for economic and national-security needs.

The agency’s current climate and land-use-change programmes would be restructured into groups focusing on land imaging, land-change science, and climate-adaptation science.

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