Trump proposes slashing science spending at the NSF

Polar science, Earth science, maths and physical sciences are affected by plan to cut funding at the US National Science Foundation.

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Copies of the first phase of the president's FY2020 budget proposal

The US Congress will decide whether or not to accept President Donald Trump's proposed cuts to science spending during their budget negotiations.Credit: Erin Scott/Reuters

US President Donald Trump has proposed cuts across the board at the National Science Foundation (NSF) in his 2020 budget request to Congress. The biggest decreases would hit funding for research in Antarctica and the Arctic, the geosciences, maths and physical sciences.

The proposed reductions to the NSF are part of a detailed request for the 2020 fiscal year that Trump released on 18 March. The 2020 fiscal year starts on 1 October 2019. The administration’s proposal builds on the barebones 2020 budget that the White House released on 11 March, which included an estimated 12% cut for the NSF from its current budget of US$8.1 billion. It also included cuts for agencies including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

It’s unclear whether lawmakers in Congress will go along with Trump’s proposal. They ignored the president’s proposed cuts to science agencies when Republicans controlled the House of Representatives and the Senate in 2017 and 2018. Budget negotiations in Congress could be particularly fraught now that Democrats control the House, says Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York who tracks federal science policy issues.

The Trump administration is seeking to boost military spending while cutting funds for science and other non-military programmes, Lubell says, but lawmakers in both parties have shown little interest in going down that road.

Spreading the pain

"There are reductions across the board," said Caitlyn Fife, NSF Budget Division Director, during a briefing call for the press on 18 March. Trump’s proposed budget would fund about 8,000 new research grants, down from an estimated 9,000 that were funded in 2018, she said. Exact numbers for new research grants in the 2019 budget were unavailable. The agency is still working on those funding levels, as well as budget amounts for all seven of the NSF’s directorates, and will submit them to Congress by 1 April for approval, Fife said.

The Trump administration has singled out research in the Antarctic and Arctic for the biggest cuts at the NSF. Funding for the Office of Polar Programs would shrink by nearly 20%, to $403.4 million, from 2018 spending levels.

Maths and physical sciences would be another big loser. Trump has proposed $1.3 billion for the mathematical and physical sciences directorate, a roughly 17% reduction from 2018 spending levels. He has requested $787.1 million for the geosciences directorate, down about 13% from 2018 levels.

The American Mathematical Society “is not pleased with the President’s proposed cut to the NSF”, says Karen Saxe, a mathematician and associate executive director at the society in Washington DC.

Derailing science

The requested cuts to the NSF are a continuation of reductions to other government science agencies’ budgets that Trump proposed last week.

2020 proposed budget

US President Donald Trump's 2020 budget request for science agencies compared with 2019 funding levels. Numbers in billions of dollars.


2019 funding levels

2020 (president's request)

Department of Energy Office of Science



National Institutes of Health






Food and Drug Administration



Environmental Protection Agency



National Science Foundation



The president’s plan includes $5.5 billion for the US Department of Energy’s Office of Science, about 16% less than the 2019 spending levels enacted by Congress. Funding for biological and environmental research would be cut by nearly 30% from 2019 levels to $494 million, while fusion research would get $403 million — a roughly 29% cut from its 2019 amount. Trump’s 2020 budget request would set aside $921 million for advanced supercomputing research, about 1.6% less than 2019 funding levels.

Trump has requested a $5-billion cut for the NIH, to $34.4 billion, from 2019 levels — the third year in a row that the president has proposed slashing the agency’s budget. Congress has rejected Trump’s proposed NIH cuts for the past two years. Trump has also proposed a 2% cut from current spending levels at NASA to $21 billion. One agency that would see its funding increase under the president’s plan is the Food and Drug Administration. The president has proposed raising the agency’s budget to $3.3 billion — a roughly 11% increase over 2019 levels.

The EPA, however, would be hit by a 31% reduction from its current $8.8-billion budget if Congress accepted Trump’s 2020 budget request for the agency. Congress rejected similar cuts proposed by Trump in 2017 and 2018.

“If enacted, the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to research and development would derail our nation’s science enterprise,” says a statement from Rush Holt, chief executive officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00851-1

Updates & Corrections

  • Correction 19 March 2019: In the chart comparing 2019 funding levels and Trump's 2020 budget request, the 2019 budget for the Department of Energy Office of Science is US$6.6 billion.

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