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Trump’s budget calls for seismic disruption in medical and science research

The University of Maryland’s basketball court in College Park was transformed into a mobile dental clinic in September 2014 to provide $1 million of free dental care to 1,000 underserved, uninsured, and underinsured adults. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

President Trump’s budget calls for a seismic disruption in government-funded medical and scientific research. The cuts are deep and broad.

They also go beyond what many political observers expected. Trump had made clear that he would target the Environmental Protection Agency, but the budget blueprint calls for a startling downsizing of agencies that historically have received steady bipartisan support. The National Institutes of Health, for example, would be cut by nearly $6 billion, about a fifth of the NIH budget.

The shock waves of this blueprint will be felt far beyond the walls of government bureaucracies. The scientific endeavor across America depends to a large degree on competitive grants distributed by federal agencies that face dramatic budget cuts. NIH uses only about 10 percent of its $30 billion budget for in-house studies; more than 80 percent goes to some 300,000 outside researchers.

Investment in research and development has been seen since World War II as critical to national prosperity and security. But the Trump administration has signaled that government-funded science, like government more broadly, has become too sprawling.

The result is a budget that takes a sharp bite out of some programs and kills others outright. Those targeted for termination include an EPA program to clean up the Cheseapeake Bay, the accident-investigating Chemical Safety Board, and a NASA satellite program (long ago known as the GoreSat, after the idea was promoted by then-Vice President Al Gore) that monitors solar storms and Earth’s climate.

What's getting cut in Trump's budget

The new document — titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” — seems likely to energize scientists and students who have been rattled by Trump’s rhetoric and political appointments and are preparing to participate in the “March for Science” demonstration scheduled for April 22 in Washington.

The blueprint lacks the usual details of a presidential budget request — those will come later, the administration says — and is only the opening move in the complex negotiations with Congress over the federal purse. Lawmakers from both parties will probably try to protect federal dollars flowing into their districts.

The blueprint does not mention the National Science Foundation, which provides more than $7 billion annually in grants. That may fall under the category of “other agencies,” which are not detailed but which the blueprint puts down for a 9.8 percent cut.

The document going to Capitol Hill shows the administration’s philosophy and breaks with a history of bipartisan support for federally funded science. NIH, for example, enjoyed an increase in funding under President George W. Bush. The Trump budget blueprint does not explain why NIH has been targeted for such a huge reduction, but calls for a “major reorganization” to focus on “highest priority research.”

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The Energy Department also faces a shake-up. It is one of the nation’s largest employers of scientists and engineers. Thousands of people work in each of the national laboratories, such as the one in Los Alamos, N.M., where the atomic bomb was invented more than seven decades ago. The administration wants to boost the funding for maintenance of the nuclear weapons stockpile, but outside of that one program, Energy would see a 17.9 percent budget cut.

“The Budget for DOE demonstrates the Administration’s commitment to reasserting the proper role of what has become a sprawling Federal Government and reducing deficit spending,” the blueprint states.

President Trump just released his budget plan for the next fiscal year, which proposes some big changes in government spending. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Department of Energy’s Office of Science would see a $900 million cut. The administration is asking for cuts to a program devoted to energy efficiency and renewable energy. Targeted for elimination is the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which underwrites innovations in biofuels and batteries.

And the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program would be terminated “because the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialize innovative technologies.”

Trump has long derided the EPA, and the budget reflects the president's views. The EPA would be trimmed by $2.6 billion, a 31.5 percent cut. The EPA's Office of Research and Development would lose nearly half its budget.

Trump would also kill $250 million in grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) involving coastal and marine research and education.

NASA, which historically has had bipartisan support, is largely spared by Trump's Office of Management and Budget, which calls for a top-line budget cut of less than 1 percent. The blueprint moves dollars around within the agency to focus on "deep space exploration rather than Earth-centric research."

Protected are two big-ticket human spaceflight projects, the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule, which are supposed to be paired for an initial flight late next year. Getting a boost is planetary science, including a planned Europa Clipper mission to fly around Jupiter's intriguing moon. The budget blueprint gives a thumbs-down to the separate idea of a Europa lander.

As expected, the budget zeros out the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), a controversial Obama administration proposal to break a boulder off an asteroid and haul it to lunar orbit to be sampled by astronauts. The asteroid mission's demise has seemed written in the stars since the November election.

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NASA Earth Science prospered under President Obama but would see a cut of $102 million under the Trump budget, including the elimination of four missions. The NASA cuts, when paired with cuts from NOAA, would be felt locally at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., which bills itself as the largest collection of scientists and engineers in the world.

Goddard has been bracing for bleak budget news. The center’s director, Christopher Scolese, told The Washington Post earlier this month, “There’s clearly angst based on what people read in the papers, but at this stage in the game we’ve been allowed to proceed with plans that have been in place in Earth Science.”

Goddard can no longer count on the protection of Barbara A. Mikulski, the powerful Maryland Democrat who earlier this year retired from the Senate after five terms.

Also missing from the discussion, at least for the moment, are scientists in political positions within the Trump administration. The administration needs to fill 46 science and technology positions that require Senate confirmation. So far Trump has nominated a single person, for the top job at the Food and Drug Administration.

Trump has yet to put forward a name for the top jobs at NASA, NOAA, the White House Council on Environmental Quality or the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy — the latter position known informally as the president’s science adviser.

Sarah Kaplan, Lenny Bernstein, Brady Dennis, Darryl Fears, Chris Mooney and Steven Mufson contributed to this report.