The Trump administration, in its 2020 budget plan released last week, proposed cutting billions in federal science funding. Additional details made public Monday outline what would be lost at the National Science Foundation, the agency that provides a fourth of all federal funds for basic research.
Congress set the NSF budget at $8.1 billion in 2019. The White House would blast a budgetary shrink-ray at the agency — a 12 percent reduction to $7.1 billion. Funded at that level, the NSF would award 8,000 new grants in 2020, 1,000 fewer than it did in 2018. Its fellowship program, which funded 2,000 graduate students in 2018, would support just 1,600 scientists in training.
“As you can tell, we are in a reduced funding environment,” NSF Budget Division Director Caitlyn Fife told reporters Monday. “There are reductions across the board.”
The NSF fuels U.S. research in almost every scientific field other than medicine (which is largely funded through the Department of Health and Human Services). In 2020, per the White House budget proposal, research funding for the biological sciences, computer sciences, engineering and social sciences would be cut by a tenth, compared with estimated 2019 levels. Geosciences, mathematical and physical sciences funding would be reduced about 15 percent. NSF’s polar programs — its research at both ends of the Earth — would be cut by nearly 20 percent.
It’s possible none of these proposed cuts will come to pass. Congress, which holds the purse strings, dismissed the administration’s 2019 proposal in favor of an enlarged NSF budget. But the budget is a reflection of the White House’s positions on research.
Amanda Hallberg Greenwell, head of the legislative and public affairs office at the NSF, said the cuts were in line with President Trump’s request to reduce, across all federal agencies, nondefense spending by 5 percent. Any given cut is “not an indication of priority,” she said. “It’s making the math work.”
The proposal signals that the administration considers a few areas of research and development to be priorities: Money for artificial intelligence research would increase, as would funding for advanced manufacturing, semiconductors and microelectronics. NSF’s budget request tries “to protect some of those R&D priority areas,” Fife said, as well as investments in new facilities to keep construction on schedule.
Early feedback from Democrats and scientific organizations was not positive. Rush Holt, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science said, in a statement after the last week’s budget overview was released, “If enacted, the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the fiscal year 2020 nondefense discretionary budget would derail our nation’s science enterprise."
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Tex.), the House Science Committee chairwoman, said in a statement last week that “this proposal is simply absurd and shows a complete disregard for the importance of civilian R&D and science and technology programs.”
NSF-supported technologies are as grand as gravitational-wave observatories and commonplace as bar-code scanners. NSF funds helped create iPhones, Google and those yellow highway barrels filled with sand that absorb car crash impacts. The White House, in a recent statement on technology and innovation, exhorted Americans to build upon a strong research and development ecosystem.
“In order for the United States to remain a world leader,” Holt said, the budget needs to match the enthusiasm.