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Sat 25 May 2019
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Donald Trump’s administration has proposed further significant cuts to science funding in its third White House budget, angering experts who argue the sector is essential to the U.S. economy.   

A Budget for a Better America, published on 11 March, outlines a billion-dollar cut to federal R&D spending to boost defence and national security initiatives – including an $8.6bn allocation for the US-Mexico border wall.

The proposals would reduce the National Institutes of Health’s $38bn budget by $4.5bn and decrease the budget of the National Science Foundation from $8.1bn to $7.1bn. The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget would shrink by almost a third, from $8.8bn to $6.1bn.  

Even NASA did not escape unscathed. Its budget will fall from $21.5bn to $21bn in 2020.

Even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) did not escape unscathed. Under the White House proposals, NASA’s budget would fall from $21.5bn to $21bn in 2020.

It is not unusual for Republican administrations to prioritise military spending and tax cuts. But a 2017 analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, suggests that Trump’s proposed science cuts are tougher even than those put forward by the Reagan administration. 

Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Texas Democrat who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said that Trump had “once again rejected reality” with his budget proposals. “This request proposes unreasonably deep cuts to many of the nation’s federal science agencies,” Johnson said in a statement.  

I can’t imagine what kind of thinking led the administration to propose such drastic budget cuts.

Chris Schaffer, Cornell University

“I can’t imagine what kind of thinking led the administration to propose such drastic budget cuts,” said Chris Schaffer, associate professor of biomedical engineering at Cornell University. “Discoveries made with federal support have led to new diagnosis tools and treatments for disease. They have spurred the creation of our modem information economy,” he said.

Trump’s proposed cuts were disappointing, but not surprising to Schaffer. “The president’s proposed budget was largely in line with the cuts that were proposed in the previous two budgets,” he said. “Of course, it’s disappointing to see these cuts being proposed again despite the extensive efforts by scientists all over the country to help the administration see the value of consistent investment.”

Trump does not seem to understand the value of science or innovation, said Dan Kammen, professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley. He noted that attacks on science “play well with a disenfranchised base that is not seeing global connectivity and innovation benefitting them, when in fact it is.”  

If approved, the cuts could have a devastating impact not only on specific research programmes but on the wider U.S. economy, said Kammen. “It is amazingly sad that someone who professes to be a business person is unable to see this,” he added.

The good news is that Congress is highly unlikely to approve any of Trump’s proposals, said Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Congress has “actually been pretty generous to science” in recent years, despite Trump’s requests to the contrary, he said.There are numerous ways in which Trump has demonstrated that science is not a top priority.

Corb doesn’t believe the White House sets out with the intention of “sticking it to scientists.” Rather, he thinks the administration simply trims anything that doesn’t directly drive towards Trump’s goal of increased spending on defence and national security. “I think they’re looking at a spreadsheet and saying; ‘how much do we need to cut here in order to fund this priority there.’”  

I don’t think this administration cares all that much about the scientific community.

Benjamin Corb, director of public affairs at ASBMB

That said, there are numerous ways in which Trump has demonstrated that science is not a top priority, said Corb. Most notably, Trump did not appoint a director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy for over 700 days – the longest the role has ever been vacant said Corb.

“I don’t think this administration cares all that much about the scientific community,” said Corb. But scientists need not lose hope.

“Scientists need to remember they have a lot of allies on Capitol Hill, both Republican and Democrat,” said Corb. “They have been generous to science in the past, and there’s no reason to believe they won’t continue to be generous to science in the future.” 

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