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By Mitch Ambrose
As part of a broader push to constrain nondefense spending, President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 would sharply pare back science programs across the federal government.
The administration’s cuts resemble those it proposed in its previous two budget requests, which Congress largely rejected. Many of the steepest cuts again target programs that fund environmental research and later-stage energy R&D. Others would essentially roll back large increases that Congress provided over the past two budget cycles.
These recent increases were enabled by a budget agreement that raised statutory caps on defense and non-defense spending for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Congress is now preparing to negotiate an agreement to raise the spending caps for the following two years.
Under the current caps for fiscal year 2020, which begins on October 1, 2019, overall spending on defense and non-defense programs would drop about 10 percent. However, since 2013, Congress has always reached an agreement to raise the caps for two years at a time.
The budget prioritizes research tied to “industries of the future,” a phrase Trump used in his latest State of the Union Address. The White House has identified four corresponding priority areas: artificial intelligence, quantum information science, advanced communication networks, and advanced manufacturing. In support of the recently launched National Quantum Initiative, the budget states it includes approximately $430 million for quantum information science across the Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Energy (DOE), National Science Foundation (NSF), and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
DOD’s Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation accounts would collectively rise almost 10 percent above already historically high levels to just over $100 billion under the proposal. Earlier-stage R&D programs would not benefit from this surge, with accounts for basic research, applied research, and advanced technology development instead together decreasing 12 percent to $14 billion, near their fiscal year 2017 total.
The cuts to DOE would fall heaviest on its applied energy R&D programs. For the third year in a row, the administration proposes to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy and slash funding for renewable, fossil, and nuclear energy R&D. Meanwhile, the DOE Office of Science budget would be rolled back by about $1 billion, or 16 percent, bringing it just above its level in fiscal year 2017. While most of the office’s divisions would see cuts ranging from about 10 to 30 percent, the advanced computing division budget would remain at a historically high level to support an exascale computing initiative.
Cuts to NSF are spread across directorates, shaving about $1 billion or 12 percent from the agency. The budget for major facility construction would drop by a quarter, though the conclusion of two projects freed up funds for the agency to propose beginning a major upgrade to the Large Hadron Collider and launching a new program dedicated to mid-scale research infrastructure. NIST’s research facility construction budget would be halved and its research programs would drop about $110 million or 16 percent.
As one of the administration’s more favored agencies, NASA’s budget would retain much of the increase Congress recently provided the agency. However, echoing last year’s proposal, the Earth Science division would be cut by 8 percent and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope would be cancelled, leaving the Astrophysics division with a 20 percent smaller budget.
The overall budget has received a chilly reception in Congress, which is apt to disregard much of its contents. Criticizing the budget’s call for across-the-board cuts, House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY) remarked, “President Trump has somehow managed to produce a budget request even more untethered from reality than his past two.”
The author is Acting Director of FYI.
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