Trump's FY 2018 Budget Request Would Slash Most Science Programs

President Trump’s first budget request seeks historically deep cuts in non-defense spending and increases in defense and security spending. All departments would experience reduced budgets except for the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs.

Although the topline spending level of $1.065 trillion complies with the bipartisan Budget Control Act, the President’s proposal assumes that budget caps for defense and non-defense spending would be repealed. This would require action by Congress to amend or repeal the 2011 law.

Defense spending would increase by 10 percent in fiscal year 2018 to $639 billion, relative to the fiscal year 2016 enacted.

The biggest losers in the spending plan are the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA; -30 percent), Department of Agriculture (-29 percent), and the State Department (-29 percent).

The cuts to EPA are even deeper than the administration had sought just a few weeks ago, according to news reports. If enacted, EPA would have to eliminate 3,200 employees from its 15,000 member workforce. Funding for the EPA Office of Research and Development would be cut nearly in half to $250 million. STAR grants appear to be targeted for deep cuts or even elimination. President Trump is also seeking a termination of $100 million in programmatic spending on climate change initiatives at EPA, as well as reductions to programs that are restoring the Great Lakes and Chesapeake Bay.

Other programs that are targeted for elimination are ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy), the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and international climate programs.

Here’s how other science programs fared:

  • The Department of Energy Office of Science would lose $900 million (roughly -16 percent).
  • Funding for the National Institutes of Health would be reduced by $6 billion (-18 percent).
  • Competitively awarded agricultural research grants would be flat funded at “about $350 million.”
  • Funding within the Agricultural Research Service would be “focused…to the highest priority agriculture and food issues,” a euphemism that usually indicates budget cuts.
  • $250 million would be cut from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant programs that support coastal and marine research and education. The Sea Grant program, which provides research, education, and extension services, would be eliminated.
  • The U.S. Geological Survey’s budget would be cut by nearly 15 percent.
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s budget was largely spared, with only a 1 percent cut proposed, although the agency’s focus would be shift away from “Earth-centric research” to “deep space exploration.” The Earth Science program would lose $102 million, terminate four mission areas, and reduce funding for Earth science research grants.
  • No details were provided about the National Science Foundation.

The 2018 spending plan does not include details about how the cuts would be implemented within each agency. Further details are expected in May, when the rest of the president’s budget will be released.

The budget request also includes a proposal to increase defense spending in fiscal year 2017 by $30 billion, which would be partially offset by a $18 billion cut to domestic programs.

The budget was developed by reviewing the president’s public statements, according to officials in the Trump Administration. “This is the ‘America First’ budget. In fact we wrote it using the president’s own words,” said Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. “We went through his speeches, we went through articles that have been written about his policies, we talked to him, and we wanted to know what his policies were, and we turned those policies into numbers.”

Congress is not obligated to enact the President’s budget request, but the plan does serve as the starting point for their deliberations. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) said that the budget request was “only the beginning” of the appropriations process.

“As directed under the Constitution, Congress has the power of the purse,” stated House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ). “While the President may offer proposals, Congress must review both requests to assure the wise investment of taxpayer dollars.”

Former Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) said, “While we have a responsibility to reduce our federal deficit, I am disappointed that many of the reductions and eliminations proposed in the president’s skinny budget are draconian, careless and counterproductive.”

“I don’t think it’s particularly realistic to finance an increase in defense funding on the backs of non-defense discretionary programs,” said Representative Charlie Dent (R-PA). “As a member of the Appropriations Committee, I know that many of our members are deeply concerned about that.”

House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-MD) said, “many rational Republicans will refuse to sit back and watch America take itself apart piece by piece.”

Because it takes 60 votes to overcome a filibuster, Senate Democrats have the power to block the passage of any or all of the twelve appropriations bills that collectively fund the federal government.

Recognizing those political dynamics, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said: “When we get to funding the government, obviously it will be done on a bipartisan basis.”

“This budget proposed today cannot pass the Senate,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-AZ).

Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) previously called the proposed cuts “dead on arrival.”

Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) noted that domestic spending is only a small part of total government spending. “We need to remember that these programs are not the primary drivers of our debt, and to look at the full budget to find the best ways to reduce federal spending,” she said in a statement.

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President Trump Issues Executive Order to Reduce Government "Duplication"

On 13 March, President Donald J. Trump issued an executive order, which he argues will eliminate “duplication and redundancy” in the federal government. As a part of the President’s goal to restrain government spending and regulations, the directive seeks to terminate or merge agencies that have similar goals.

The White House spokesman said that the administration does not have specific numbers in mind in regards to how much money the government wishes to save through this effort, nor how many agencies might be eliminated.

Under the executive order, all federal agencies will be subject to evaluation by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Within 180 days after the release of the executive order, the head of each federal agency is to submit a plan of reorganization to OMB, which will then report to the President an assessment of the agency. Considerations taken by the OMB will include whether state or local governments can perform the actions of the agency, whether other agencies perform the same tasks, and the costs of removing or merging the agencies.

Efforts to consolidate federal programs are not new. The Government Accountability Office has previously identified dozens of areas where the federal government could be run more efficiently. During his time in office, President Obama requested the authority to reorganize the Department of Commerce in order to realign several bureaus that focus on small businesses and to move the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to the Department of the Interior.

Ultimately, such decisions are up to Congress. The reorganizations proposed by President Obama faced bipartisan opposition and were not approved. Any recommendations made by OMB for agency termination or consolidation will face congressional scrutiny.

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Lawmakers Consider How Science Should Inform Policy Decisions

On 9 March, the Senate Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management convened to hear testimony on how science should be involved in the rulemaking process.

“To put it simply, agencies should rely on the best available information and make decisions based on the weight of that information… When agencies hide information from both Congress and the American people it is our job to question their motives and methods,” expressed Subcommittee Chairman James Lankford (R-OK).

In her testimony, Dr. Susan Dudley, Director of Regulatory Studies at George Washington University, commented that “science is a positive discipline that can inform but not decide appropriate policy… Congress should not delegate decisions to agencies on the pretense that science alone can make normative decisions of what policy ought to be.” She emphasized the need to clarify which matters are science and which are policy.

A valid and credible scientific process includes peer review, open exchange of ideas, and protection of the results against manipulation from vested interests, according to Dr. Andrew Rosenberg, Director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists. This type of independent science will be critical in the policy decision. He stressed the importance of weight of evidence and credibility, and cautioned against restrictive legislation that could potentially prevent scientific innovation.

Dr. Nancy Beck, Senior Director of Regulatory Science Policy for the American Chemistry Council, offered suggestions on how to improve public trust in science used in policy. She recommended improving and applying scientific definitions, having stronger oversight to ensure existing guidelines are followed, using the peer review process, and changing how grants are distributed to not focus solely on positive results. When it comes to transparency, she wants the public to trust scientists “not because [they are] scientists, but because of the clarity and transparency of [their] science.”

Senator Maggie Hassan (D-ME) brought up the role of uncertainty in scientific evidence. Dr. Rosenberg responded that uncertainty is not equal to not really knowing, and Dr. Beck pointed out that uncertainty should not dictate whether policies should be acted on or not.

Another difficulty is the separation of science from policy. To address this, Dr. Dudley suggests that science should be used to inform policy but not decide policies. Dr. Beck emphasized the need for transparency on the quality of science, and Dr. Rosenberg underscored the importance of the scientific process and the weight of evidence towards informing policies.

The hearing will inform the drafting of legislation to address transparency and accountability in science and how science informs policymaking.

Meanwhile, in the House of Representatives, a committee has once again passed a bill that would bar the Environmental Protection Agency from proposing or finalizing any regulation that is not based on science that is “transparent or reproducible.” It’s the third time the legislation has cleared the House Science Committee.

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House Agriculture Subcommittee Stresses the Importance of Research Funding

The House Agriculture Subcommittee of Biotechnology, Horticulture, and Research held a hearing on 16 March 2017 about the importance of agricultural research and what programmatic changes should be considered as part of the upcoming farm bill.

Notably, every Representative present at the hearing stated that investing more in agricultural research was of the utmost importance.  Representative Neal Dunn (R-FL) expressed his interest in science as he and Dr. James Carrington, spokesman of the Danforth Center in St. Louis, Missouri, discussed potential improvements in the farming industry.  Carrington said that research could decrease agricultural input, making farm maintenance easier for farmers.

The decline in federal funding for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was a subject of concern.  Several Representatives and the panel of witnesses stated that both the private and public sectors are responsible for putting money into agricultural research. According to Representative Rodney Davis (R-IL), “Given that public research is often the foundation upon which private research is built, public investment is essential to maintaining the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture.” Other members of the subcommittee, however, stated that the impact of declining federal funding would be offset by the private sector.

The hearing was held the same day that President Trump released his budget request for fiscal year 2018, which calls for a 29 percent reduction for USDA.  Representative Al Lawson (D-FL) asked the panel about the impacts of the President’s budget plan, which intends to significantly slash research-related funding.  Dr. Jay Akridge, Dean of Agriculture at Purdue University, stated that such large cuts would be detrimental, bringing about greater competition in the already fierce realm of federal funding.

Several witnesses suggested improvements for the application process for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), which awards extramural research grants.  All panel members agreed that the approval process for research grants was far too long and inefficient, and suggested that pre-proposals be used.

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Preparing Students for Future Careers with STEM Funding

On 15 March, the Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee listened to a panel of witnesses discuss the role of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) funding in preparing students for 21st century careers. The hearing explored how funding from the Departments of Labor and Health and Human Services impact STEM education for in-school and out-of-school programs for grades K-12, training and internships for dislocated workers, and National Institutes of Health career fellowships.

As Committee Chairman Roy Blunt (R-MO) noted, “providing students with high-quality education in STEM is critical for the economic competitiveness and security of our nation… STEM education, from preschool through college, provides the basic skills and competencies all students need, and prepares them for well-paying careers across education levels.”

All four witnesses underscored the importance of sustained STEM funding in providing opportunities, hands-on training, and paid internships for low-income students and minority populations and dislocated workers.

Funding is especially precarious for Title I schools, or schools with large populations of low-income families. As Mr. Larry Plank, Director of K-12 STEM education of Hillsborough County Public Schools highlighted, “prior to entering kindergarten, differences in experiences lead to deep gaps in skills among these children in numeracy and literacy skills.”

To improve the STEM education experiences for kids, funding needs to go towards teacher professional development, stated Ms. Carole King, the Chief Policy and Strategy Officer for Washington STEM. This is because primary school teachers are not specialists within STEM fields.

Educational and practical experiences such as Touching Triton, an online game developed by HudsonAlpha Institute for Biotechnology in collaboration with NASA, offers students an opportunity to analyze astronaut health data to mitigate health risks during a space mission. By building and weaving in partnerships among educators, researchers, clinicians and entrepreneurs for games like Touching Triton, educational experiences can be accelerated through STEM funding, noted Dr. Neil Lamb, Vice President for Educational Outreach for HudsonAlpha.

It was also noted that Pell awards play an important role in providing paid internships during the summer for students pursuing STEM degrees at community colleges.

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Short Takes

  • The National Academies has convened an expert panel to conduct a study on “Grand Challenges and Opportunities in Environmental Engineering and Science for the 21st Century.” The scientific community is invited to submit ideas about ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation from environmental engineering and science to solve important national or global problems. Submit your ideas at http://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/3410663/a39c4df515ae?utm_source=Division+on+Earth+and+Life+Studies.
  • The latest episode of the BioScience Talks podcast is now available. It covers the health benefits associated with nature exposure. Listen at http://bioscienceaibs.libsyn.com/natures-mental-health-benefits.
  • A group of 17 Republican Representatives are calling for American innovation to be used to improve environmental stewardship. The resolution highlights the impacts of climate change on extreme weather, invasive species, and sea level and states, “if left unaddressed, the consequences of a changing climate have the potential to adversely impact all Americans.” H.Res. 195 states that it is “a conservative principle” to “base our policy decisions in science and quantifiable facts on the ground.” The resolution is sponsored by Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY).

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Become an Advocate for Science: Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center

Quick, free, easy, effective, impactful! Join the AIBS Legislative Action Center.

The Legislative Action Center is a one-stop shop for learning about and influencing science policy. Through the website, users can contact elected officials and sign-up to interact with lawmakers.

The website offers tools and resources to inform researchers about recent policy developments. The site also announces opportunities to serve on federal advisory boards and to comment on federal regulations.

This new tool is made possible through contributions from the Society for the Study of Evolution, Association for the Sciences of Limnology and Oceanography, and the Botanical Society of America.

AIBS and our partner organizations invite scientists and science educators to become policy advocates today. Simply go to policy.aibs.org to get started.

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