Turmoil in the US

C&I Issue 3, 2017

So much has been going on in the US politically in the past few weeks that it’s difficult to know where to start. The high profile failure of Trump’s healthcare bill, which left Obamacare in place, and the headline-making rollback of Obama’s signature climate change legislation, have somewhat overshadowed the threats to science.

Because of the way the fiscal year works in the US – the new one starts on 1 October – the new administration has to work with the 2017 budget approved last year. This, essentially, means that to shift priorities, cash has to be taken from one area and given to another via the appropriations process, which must be completed by the end of April 2017when the continuing resolution funding federal government expires.

Although several congressional appropriators have claimed it is far too late into the fiscal year to make major changes, this hasn’t stopped Trump from asking Congress to make some pretty hefty cuts.

Trump wants an $18bn cut in non-defence expenditure to free up cash for greater military spending, and to pay for the construction of the much-derided wall across the Mexican border. Leaks suggest he wants a sixth of this – $3bn – to come via slashing federal R&D funding. Although he has no authority to put the spending changes into action – that is the job of Congress – it does give an alarming insight into the president’s priorities.

For the most part, the leaked spreadsheet for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year mirrors the spending priorities detailed in his proposed 2018 budget. Trump wants to slash applied R&D straight away, believing this should be done by private enterprises, not paid for by government. Proposed cuts to more basic research are still substantial, but a little less swingeing. However, as we are already half of the way through the 2017 fiscal year, agencies would be left scrabbling to make what, in real terms, will feel like double the annual percentage cuts.

The National Science Foundation, for example, is facing a potential $350m cut this year, representing a 5% reduction. Also facing a 5% reduction, of $40m, is the National Institute of Standards and Technology. A 40% cut is slated for its contributions to Manufacturing USA, the public–private partnership national network for manufacturing innovation, which would mean that a planned new NIST-funded institute this year would not happen.

More modest 1% budget cuts are called for at NASA, at $50m, and the Department of Energy’s office of science, at $37m. However, this latter office will be slashed by 17% in the 2018 budget, if it gets through as proposed. A 4% cut of $90m is on the cards at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather satellite programmes, and a further $115m from its other grants, including research.

These all seem somewhat restrained, however, when put alongside the proposed evisceration of the National Institutes of Health’s budget. Trump is calling for a $1.18bn reduction in research grant spend in 2017, representing 4% of its overall budget. This pales into insignificance compared with the proposed $5.8bn cut in 2018. That represents a massive 18% of NIH’s budget, and will have a huge impact on scientific research.

Big cuts are also slated in R&D spending at the EPA, with a 10%, or $48m, reduction in climate research. The 2018 budget calls for a $233m – 40% – reduction in its R&D spending. Well, the new head of EPA, Scott Pruitt, has been trying to abolish the agency for years. Removing its ability to carry out much research will go a long way down that road.

The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, meanwhile, has been gutted by the departure of many scientists and technology experts. As of the beginning of April, OSTP had just one appointee – a deputy chief technology officer in the form of Michael Kratsios, who is a former chief-of-staff for Silicon Valley venture capital billionaire and Trump supporter, Peter Thiel. He is neither a scientist nor an engineer – he has a degree in political science.

There is no sign of a new director for OSTP, either. It is unclear whether this is simply a reflection of the glacially slow rate at which Trump has been appointing new senior staffers, or an indication that he does not believe that science and technology is important. Some of Trump’s team have even called for OSTP to be abolished entirely. Who needs scientific advice when you can have conspiracy theories and alternative news?

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