NEWS

Trump seeks big cuts to science funding — again

The US president wants to cut spending at the National Institutes of Health and Environmental Protection Agency, but it’s not clear whether Congress will go along.

Search for this author in:

Search for this author in:

Search for this author in:

Search for this author in:

Search for this author in:

The United States Capitol Building in Washington DC

Congress has largely rejected US President Donald Trump's calls to cut science funding over the past two years.Credit: M. Borchi/Getty

On 11 March, US President Donald Trump released his budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October 2019.

Nature’s news team reports on what Trump’s budget would mean for US government science agencies.

National Institutes of Health

The White House plan would give the National Institutes of Health (NIH) US$34.4 billion, roughly $5 billion below the current level. The plan would replace the the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), an independent agency in the Department of Health and Human Services, with a new NIH institute, the National Institute for Research on Safety and Quality.

“I think it would be a disaster for science if it was enacted,” says Benjamin Krinsky, associate director for legislative affairs at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology in Bethesda, Maryland.

But Krinsky and others are sceptical that Congress will go along with the Trump plan. This is the third year that Trump has proposed cutting the NIH’s budget. Congress has rebuffed Trump’s proposed cuts for the past two years, and last year, it rejected his plan to move the AHRQ to the NIH.

“I look forward to Congress rejecting these budget cuts, just as they have rejected all the other cuts the president has proposed,” says Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology in Rockville, Maryland.

Corb adds that the president’s budget makes no sense in light of the proposal that Trump unveiled in January to halt the spread of HIV over the next decade. “The president committed to eradicate HIV/AIDS by 2030, and cut the very programmes that would be necessary to make that goal happen,” he says.

National Science Foundation

The budget request includes $7.1 billion for the National Science Foundation (NSF), roughly 12% below the current $8.1 billion. But the Trump plan does not include any detail on how that money would be distributed within the NSF.

“Like everybody else, I don’t know what the details are,” says Joel Widder, a lobbyist at Federal Science Partners in Washington DC and a former NSF public-affairs officer. He says that the White House proposal would reduce the NSF’s budget to below the 2015 level. “They’ve set the agency back at least five years with this budget request.”

Environmental Protection Agency

The Trump plan would provide $6.1 billion for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a 31% drop from the agency’s current $8.8-billion budget. That includes $440 million for science and technology. Trump proposed similarly drastic cuts to the EPA’s budget in 2017 and 2018, which Congress rejected both times.

NASA

NASA’s proposed budget of $21 billion — 2% below the current level — focuses heavily on the administration’s goal to return astronauts to the Moon. The Trump plan would set aside $10.7 billion for various programmes for advancing human and robotic exploration of the Moon, including $363 million for a lunar lander that could carry cargo and astronauts to the lunar surface. Smaller commercial landers could fly to the Moon as early as this year, and the agency says that it will put humans there by 2028. “We’re looking at going fast,” said NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine in an agency-wide address on 11 March.

The White House plan would cut NASA science by 8.7%, to $6.3 billion. Of the agency’s four science divisions, planetary science would receive the biggest pot of money; the administration’s proposed funding of $2.6 billion is 4.9% below the current level. The Trump plan includes funding for a mission to retrieve rock samples from Mars; that spacecraft could launch as early as 2026. The samples would be gathered by NASA’s Mars 2020 rover, now in development. The plan also includes funding for a mission, set to launch in 2023, to fly past Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. The project was championed by former Representative John Culberson (Republican, Texas), who was voted out of office in November, in part because his constituents felt he had focused too much on Solar System exploration and not enough on their issues.

Astrophysics would see the deepest cuts. The budget request would fund the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, at $353 million. That would keep the Webb telescope moving towards a March 2021 launch. “This administration is committed to the James Webb Space Telescope,” Bridenstine said. But the White House proposal would cut the rest of the astrophysics budget to $845 million, a 29% drop. And for the second year in a row, the administration is seeking to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which is designed to hunt for exoplanets and dark matter. Congress restored funds for it last year, despite Trump’s requested cuts.

The proposed $1.78-billion budget for Earth science is 7.8% below the current level. The Trump plan would cancel two missions that the White House has twice tried to eliminate: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem satellite and a solar-reflectance mission called the CLARREO Pathfinder. Two others previously on the chopping block — the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3, which is expected to launch in April, and the Earth-observing instruments on the DSCOVR space-weather satellite — are not threatened this time.

Funding for heliophysics would drop by 2%, to $704.5 million. The Trump plan would continue funding for missions such as the Parker Solar Probe, which is currently swooping around the Sun closer than any spacecraft has come before.

Department of Energy Office of Science

The Trump plan includes $5.5 billion for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science, about 16% less than the 2019 funding level. The 2020 request would set aside $169 million for quantum-information science, $71 million for research into artificial intelligence and machine learning and $500 million for supercomputing. The office’s current budget includes $936 million for advanced supercomputing research, but it is not clear how the administration’s $500-million proposal for 2020 compares to the 2019 figure. The White House provided few other details on its 2020 request for the energy department. It is unclear how Congress will greet the plan; last year, the Trump administration sought $5.4 billion for the Office of Science, but Congress ultimately gave the office $6.6 billion.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The White House budget documents do not include a detailed proposal for funding the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which received $5.4 billion in 2019. It does list $1.2 billion for NOAA’s satellite programme, including “polar weather satellites, space weather instruments, and satellite data collection systems”.

The Trump budget also seeks to eliminate NOAA’s National Sea Grant College Program, which supports more than 30 US universities that conduct research, education and training on ocean and coastal topics. The White House had also proposed ending the Sea Grant programme in 2017 and 2018, but Congress has continued to fund it.

Food and Drug Administration

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) budget would increase by $362 million, bringing it to $3.3 billion. The Trump plan includes $55 million to tackle opioid addiction, and $55 million to speed digital health technologies’ progression to market. The budget request would also add a user fee on applications for the approval of new tobacco and nicotine-related products, including e-cigarettes.

Steven Grossman, deputy executive director of the advocacy group Alliance for a Stronger FDA in Silver Spring, Maryland, is pleased with the proposed increase for the FDA, but notes that the full details of the agency’s budget are unclear. “The agency will be able to apply new monies to important programmes,” he says, “as well as hire needed scientific personnel.”

But Ryan Hohman, vice-president for public affairs at the advocacy group Friends of Cancer Research in Washington DC, says that even if the FDA’s budget increases, there is scant cause to celebrate, given the proposed cuts to NIH. “By taking a hatchet to the agency that is providing the baseline science that leads to all of the life-saving therapies that the FDA evaluates, you’re putting at risk decades of potential progress.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00719-4
Nature Briefing

Sign up for the daily Nature Briefing email newsletter

Stay up to date with what matters in science and why, handpicked from Nature and other publications worldwide.

Sign Up