President Trump's budget blueprint calls for massive cuts to federally funded research. The leaders of the scientific and medical establishment woke up to that startling news Thursday morning and quickly fired off statements of protest and alarm. This budget, they collectively warned, threatens America's pre-eminence in science and technology.
“This is not a budget that’s designed to make America first,” Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told The Washington Post.
His organization issued a statement warning that the cuts, if implemented, would “cripple the science and technology enterprise.” In the interview with The Post, Holt said the Trump budget blueprint is only the first step in the budgetary process and that, historically, science and medicine have enjoyed bipartisan support from appropriators on the Hill. But this was a rough morning for some people, he said. Holt pointed to the administration's proposal to eliminate completely the Energy Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which does research on batteries, metals, electrical grids, etc.
“They woke up to a shock this morning. Here’s an organization that thought they were doing very well in what they were designed to do and what the country needs — doing pre-commercialization, far-reaching, imaginative research. And now they’re told to close their operation,” Holt said.
Other science organizations are similarly alarmed. The statement Thursday morning from Christine McEntee, executive director of the American Geophysical Union, warns of what a jaundiced observer might call the Acronymageddon: “The cuts to federal agencies such as DOE, EPA, NOAA, NSF, USGS, and programs within NASA, will put the safety and well-being of millions of families and companies at risk.” She goes on:
We are disheartened and significantly concerned by the president’s budget proposal, which clearly devalues science and research.
Investment in Earth and space science has given us better satellite data for our military, more accurate forecasting that protects the public from natural hazards, and improved our understanding of the effects of a changing climate on agricultural, ecosystems, and human health. Without the critical data and information this research provides, who will farmers turn to when they need help managing their crops? Who will the Pentagon turn to when they need information to support effective troop movements? Who will families turn to when a hurricane or tornado threatens their lives and livelihoods?
Glynda Becker, president of the Science Coalition, a nonpartisan organization that advocates for federal funding for public and private universities, issued a statement saying that China, South Korea and India are aggressively investing in research and development and that the Trump budget could imperil U.S. leadership in science:
“Since World War II, America’s commitment to scientific breakthroughs has been a continual driver of U.S. economic growth. The personal computer, the Internet, smartphones are all based on research that had its beginnings in labs and centers funded in part by the federal government. Likewise, the biomedical revolution with its advancement of disease-fighting vaccines and lifesaving drugs and the advance of diagnostic tools such as the MRI would not have occurred without federal support of collaborative research. And, most of the technologies that have made our men and women in uniform the world’s most effective fighting force, all had their start and ongoing improvements in federally funded scientific research.”
Frances M. Visco, president of the National Breast Cancer Coalition, said in a statement to The Post that the Trump budget would have life-or-death consequences:
The President's proposed budget will set back science and health by decades. It will destroy the progress that has been made. We are not just talking numbers. Lives depend on continuing this nation's level of funding for research into biomedical funding and technologies. We need to build on the billions that have been invested to date to save lives, not go back to the dark ages. This is frightening.
Sue Desmond-Hellmann, Chief Executive Officer of the Bill& Melinda Gates Foundation, said in a written statement that her organization is “deeply troubled” by the Trump budget plan, which includes severe cuts to foreign aid as well as the elimination of an NIH foundation that focuses on international health. She said American investments overseas have helped prevent the deaths of 122 million children and cut extreme poverty in half.
“Empowering people to lead healthy, productive lives creates more stable societies, which are critical to our national security. In the United States, we must continue to focus on expanding access to education and economic opportunity. The proposed cuts will ultimately make America, and the world, less prosperous and less safe,” she wrote.
A spokesman for NIH, which would lose nearly a fifth of its funding under the Trump budget, said NIH would not be issuing any comment. NASA would take only a small top-line hit under the Trump budget, and the agency's acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, issued a statement Thursday, saying, “This is a positive budget overall for NASA.”
But Phil Larson, a former Obama White House staffer who worked on space policy, and who now is at the University of Colorado, noted that the Trump budget kills four NASA Earth Science missions. One of those, the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), is already almost 1 million miles from Earth, between Earth and the sun, from which perch it monitors solar storms as well as climate change on our planet. The satellite concept was first proposed in the 1990s, and was promoted by Vice President Al Gore, who liked the idea of a camera providing real-time images of the Earth. Critics called it the GoreSat, and more than a decade passed before the program was finally up and running. The satellite launched in 2015.
“Cutting budget for science missions that are already in space and just beginning their work is quite baffling. The hard and costly part was getting them up there. Why turn them off early?” Larson wrote in an email to The Post.
The Trump budget had good news for planetary science, with an uptick in funding and a green light for an ambitious NASA flagship mission that would send a robotic spacecraft to orbit Jupiter's moon Europa. But Joel Parriott, a policy analyst for the American Astronomical Society, said in an email to The Post that the science community should be united in the coming budget battles and avoid internecine conflicts: “We need to stand together in advocating for the critical role that all areas of science play in our nation’s economic prosperity and national security.”
Echoing that is Michael Eisen, a professor of molecular and cell biology at the University of California, Berkeley who is planning to run for Senate in 2018. He told The Post that Trump’s proposed NIH cuts would “cripple the whole biomedical enterprise.” But he said Congress usually supports biomedical research. More vulnerable, he said, are programs that protect the environment and those that help the poor and needy.
“It’s very unlikely they’re going to start attacking science by starting to attack biomedical science because everybody wants cures for diseases,” Eisen said. “Strategically, what they’re doing is throwing out so many devastating cuts they’re forcing everyone into fighting for scraps. I hope it doesn’t turn into NIH vs. NSF, or EPA vs NOAA.”
Ellen Williams, a University of Maryland physics professor who served as director of ARPA-E for the last two years of the Obama Administration, noted that the Trump budget is modeled on a blueprint put out a year ago by the conservative Heritage Foundation. That Heritage budget listed ARPA-E as one of the government agencies that should be terminated in an effort to bring down federal deficits and ensure that government activities do not crowd out private investment. But Williams said her former agency, founded under President George W. Bush, sticks to projects that the private sector won't bankroll.
“ARPA-E is an innovation agency. Its funding is for high risk, potentially high payoff technologies that are too early-stage for the private sector to invest in,” she said. “The proposal to kill the agency is very misguided. For an administration that says it wants economic growth, prosperity, new jobs, killing ARPA-E is absolutely the wrong thing to do.”
Katie Tubb, a policy analyst for energy and environment at the Heritage Foundation, said the Heritage and Trump budgets are similar in principle and reflect a belief that government funding of research can crowd out private funding and be harmful to innovation over time.
“I would question why is it the role of the federal government to be funding science across the board. The private sector plays a huge role in supporting science," Tubb said. "When the federal government funds particular projects, there’s a dozen others that they’re not funding. That, in the long run, is harmful for innovation. Yes, this is going to be painful for certain sciences, certain spheres of knowledge – for example, renewable energy – but in the long run I think it's healthier for the scientific community in general.”
Carolyn Johnson contributed to this report.