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NASA soars and others plummet in Trump’s budget proposal

US research sees deep cuts in the president’s request for 2021. But Congress has resisted similar reductions in the past.

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A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner spacecraft launches from Space Launch Complex 41

NASA is looking to commercial companies to help it achieve its lunar ambitions. Shown is the December 2019 launch of Boeing’s Starliner Spacecraft.Credit: Geopix/Alamy

US research on artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing would see dramatic boosts in funding for 2021, under a proposed budget released by the White House on 10 February. The budget request issued by President Donald Trump makes cuts across most science agencies for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October 2020. Although Congress has repeatedly rebuffed such requests for cuts — and has, in fact, increased science spending in the enacted budgets — the 132-page document from the White House offers a view into the administration’s priorities and ambitions leading up to the November election.

Among US agencies that fund and conduct research, NASA would see big gains. The National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) and Department of Energy (DOE), among others, are slated for budget reductions.

“Trump is being Trump,” says Michael Lubell, a physicist at the City College of New York who tracks federal science-policy issues. All of Trump’s budgets have sought to slash funding for the US research enterprise, but he has yet to convince lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Lubell says. “He can ask for what he wants, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.”

NASA

Under the president’s request, NASA would get US$25.2 billion for fiscal year 2021, a jump of nearly 12% over funding enacted by Congress for the current year. The money is meant to jump-start the administration’s plans to send astronauts to the Moon by the end of 2024. The request includes $3.4 billion to develop lunar landers that could carry humans. Last year, lawmakers granted $600 million towards developing such landers — less than half of what the White House asked for.

Under the banner of a ‘Moon-to-Mars’ strategy, the president’s request also includes $529 million for robotic exploration of Mars. That would include bringing back a set of rock samples that will be collected by a rover slated to launch in July, and developing an ice-mapping mission to gather information for future landing sites.

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, which funds external research projects and partners, would receive $6.3 billion, which is the same amount proposed by the White House last year but would be a nearly 12% decrease from what Congress allocated. As in previous years, the president’s request aims to cancel NASA’s next flagship space telescope, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, as well as the planned Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) and Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder Earth-science missions. Also on the proposed chopping block is the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a telescope that flies aboard a jumbo jet. Congress has rejected those requested cuts in past years.

NIH

The president’s budget proposes $38.7 billion for the NIH, about a 7% cut on the current level of $41.7 billion. The proposal is consistent with past White House budget requests; last year, the administration requested a $5-billion cut. As in the past 2 years, the budget proposes creating a new $335-million NIH institute, the National Institute for Research on Safety and Quality, to replace the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality at the Department of Health and Human Services. Also, as part of the administration’s broader push to use and develop AI across sectors, the White House allocates $50 million of its proposed NIH budget for the study of chronic diseases using AI.

NSF

The White House proposal seeks a total of $7.7 billion for the NSF for fiscal year 2021, a decrease of more than $500 million from the enacted 2020 budget. This includes a 6% decrease in funding for research and development.

The president’s request includes reductions to six of the NSF’s seven research directorates, including cuts of more than $100 million each for biological sciences and engineering. Computer and information science and engineering would be the only major research area to see an increase in its funding, consistent with the administration’s plans to prioritize AI and quantum computing. These two areas will receive a combined $1 billion of the NSF budget under the president’s proposal. The NSF budget also includes $50 million for workforce development, with a focus on community colleges, historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and other minority-serving institutions. But the budget calls for deep cuts to other diversity-focused initiatives, such as the HBCU Excellence in Research programme

Proposed cuts of more than 10% would slash the budgets for geoscience research, the Office of International Science and Engineering and the Office of Polar Programs, which maintains the US research presence in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Tim Clancy, the president of Arch Street, a consulting company in Alexandria, Virginia, with a focus on federal science policy, says that although Congress has typically rejected Trump’s proposed cuts to science funding, strict budget caps this year might mean that legislators will have to make difficult decisions about cutting programmes in order to free up money for the president’s AI and quantum initiatives.

DOE

The budget would provide $5.8 billion for the DOE’s Office of Science, a drop of nearly 17% from 2020 levels. The office would see sharp decreases across its portfolio, which spans biological and environmental research, fusion and high-energy physics. Only the advanced scientific computing programme, with roughly level funding of $988 million, would escape the cuts.

The White House once again proposed slashing funding for clean-energy research. The popular Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) — which received a record $425 million last year — would be eliminated, and the office of energy efficiency and renewable energy would see its budget slashed by roughly 74%. Funding for fossil-fuel research and development would drop by less than 3%, to $731 million.

The proposal faces long odds on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have balked at such cuts. Last year, for instance, the administration sought to cut the Office of Science’s budget by nearly 16%; Congress responded by nudging the total up 6%, to a record $7 billion.

EPA

The White House is once again seeking to drastically cut funding for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which would see its budget drop by roughly 26%, to $6.7 billion. The budget would provide just $478 million for science and technology, a decrease of 33%. But Congress has repeatedly rejected the administration’s attempts to cut funding for the EPA, whose budget has increased since Trump entered the White House.

NOAA

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would receive more than $4.6 billion, a drop of 14%. The core science budget in the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research would fall by more than 40% to $327 million, although Congress rejected a similar cut last year. The administration has once again proposed eliminating the National Sea Grant College Program, which promotes research into the conservation and sustainable development of marine resources, and which Congress has thus far maintained. The budget would provide $188 million for sea-floor mapping and exploration efforts along the US coasts.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-020-00348-2

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