The Bush administration has tried to portray its 2002 budget proposal as a case study in moderation. But when it gets down to the small print, the proposal is anything but moderate, slashing programmes that are not to the administration's liking.

Environmental science is one of the victims. Research that deals with air and water pollution, or with biodiversity, would be cut to the bone under the proposal. Practically no agency that supports work in toxicology, hydrology, oceanography, atmospheric science or whole-organism biology is left untouched.

The numbers are, by the usual standards of such things, quite remarkable. The research programmes of the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, are reduced by more than 20%, from $919 million to $707 million; biological and environmental science at the Department of Energy falls by 8%; and the United States Geological Survey's water-resources division is cut by almost a quarter.

The National Science Foundation may have a level budget for research, but this means that the agency's ambitious plans to expand its environmental-science programmes will be stillborn. The science office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, meanwhile, loses 10% of its funding. Even the Smithsonian Institution, sensing that the new administration is not going to be a generous benefactor for environmental research, has seen fit to close an important conservation centre (see Nature 410, 727; 2001).

There has been no strategic explanation for any of this. One is left to conclude that the Bush administration — which has not yet named appointees to its most important scientific positions — simply does not buy the case for the scientific study of environmental questions.

Yet an unusually wide consensus in the United States holds that good science is the only reasonable basis for environmental stewardship. A majority of members of both houses of Congress claim to believe that they should act now to reverse Bush's rash attack on environmental science.