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Science and Environmental Spending Make Conspicuous Targets in Trump Budget

Leader of key academic group says plan "would derail our nation’s science enterprise."

In targeting programs whose missions range from countering climate change, to cleaning coastal waters, to maintaining national parks, to conducting basic health research, the Trump administration’s proposed spending cuts in its fiscal 2020 budget have set off predictable alarm bells among science and environmental groups.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science this month pointed to the budget’s plan to shrink total federal research and development spending by 4.6 percent, with basic research down by 10.5 percent, and applied research down by 14.4 percent. “If enacted, the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to research and development would derail our nation’s science enterprise,” said AAAS President Rush Holt, a physicist and former House member. “For the United States to remain a world leader in science and innovation during a time of increased competition from other countries, we should invest more in science and engineering, not less.”

The “Major Savings and Reforms” document released on Monday proposed reduced funding along with reorganizations that would affect scientific work. Though many recognize that Congress isn’t likely to accept the steep slices the White House seeks, the academic, advocacy and nonprofit community reacted to the two-part budget release by highlighting the items and their rationales that they consider extreme.

The National Institutes of Health would see its research and development grants cut by $4.5 billion, while, in support of “the largest change management effort in NIH’s history,” the institutes would “break down administrative silos.” To “increase the impact of its resources,” Trump’s team proposed that NIH “decrease the cost of research by capping the percentage of investigator salary that can be paid with grant funds, and by reducing the limit for salaries paid with grant funds from $189,600 to $154,300.”

The new budget would also eliminate the related Health and Human Services Department's Agency for Health Care Research and Quality while consolidating its activities in a new institute called the National Institute for Research on Quality and Safety. “This consolidation would reduce duplication and leverage the expertise of both AHRQ and NIH,” it said.

The National Science Foundation would take a 10 percent cut for research and development, the budget documents said, noting that “comprehensive governmentwide efforts are currently under way to increase the accuracy and consistency of the R&D budget via a collaborative community of practice of federal agencies, which have been working to identify best practices and standards” for reporting activities. The Office of Management and Budget in 2018 narrowed the definition of “experimental development” to exclude pre-production and user demonstrations of a product, which makes the new budget amounts lower, the document said. (NSF Director France Córdova said in a statement after the budget’s release that “NSF will continue to push the frontiers of U.S. research and discovery and support the development of innovative approaches to solve society's most pressing problems.”)

At the Environmental Protection Agency—which Trump slated for the steepest cuts, at 31 percent—R&D grants such as Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grants, would take a major hit. “Extramural R&D activities, in the form of research grants to non-federal entities such as universities, are not required to meet EPA’s statutory obligations and therefore would not be funded,” the budget stated. “In addition, similar research can be funded and conducted by non-federal entities without EPA support.”

EPA’s Energy Star voluntary efficiency compliance program for industries that make home appliances, which has been funded since 1992, would launch a new rulemaking process to convert to funding through user fees. “The budget also proposes to eliminate funding for several smaller voluntary partnership programs related to energy and climate change,” the administration said. “These programs are not essential to EPA's core mission and can be implemented by the private sector.”

To the consternation of lawmakers from the affected watershed areas, the budget proposed largely defunding three of EPA’s major geographic programs—those focused on the Great Lakes, the Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound. “These activities are primarily local efforts and the responsibility for coordinating and funding these efforts generally belongs with states and local partnerships,” it read. “The budget would maintain limited funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Chesapeake Bay program to fund critical basin-wide monitoring and build capacity at the state and local level to conduct this monitoring,” it said. “These efforts present a uniquely federal role due to the need for continuous long-term monitoring in these complex watersheds and the current lack of capacity for non-federal groups to take on this role.”

At NASA, while overall R&D would grow slightly, the budget would zero out two earth science missions—the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder—calling them “not a priority in the current fiscal environment.”

Also terminated would be NASA’s Office of STEM Management, which provides education grants to students in science, technology, engineering and math. “The discontinuation of NASA's education grant programs is unlikely to have a significant impact on overall research and STEM capacity building that would continue to be supported through other means,” the budget said.

The Energy Department would lose its Advanced Research Projects Agency, see its applied energy programs reduced by 65 percent and its Biological and Environmental Research cut by 30 percent.

The budget would cut funding for land acquisition both at the Interior Department, by $33 million, and the Agriculture Department, eliminating its role. The two “are already responsible for managing roughly 700 million acres of land and maintenance backlogs close to $20 billion,” the budget said. “Rather than acquiring additional lands that the federal government cannot afford to maintain, these agencies should focus available resources on the management of existing lands and assets.”

The budget also “increases funding for energy development on public lands and in federal waters but decreases funding for safety enforcement and prioritizes energy dominance over the protection of our national parks and their wildlife, and clean air and water,” said the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association.

 “President Trump’s proposed budget is yet another example of the lack of understanding this administration has about the importance and significance of our national parks and public lands,” said Theresa Pierno, the conservation association's president and CEO. “The administration is proposing to gut the National Park Service’s budget by $481 million, which would cut hundreds of ranger jobs as parks continue to experience record visitation. The budget also proposes severely slashing funding for EPA programs that protect the air we breathe and water we drink. This onslaught of budget cuts only compounds challenges already facing our parks and public lands. Yet the administration is determined to increase funding by the billions for a controversial border wall that will block wildlife migration, disrupt water flow and destroy delicate park ecosystems.”

The AAAS argued that the overall cuts in science R&D are actually steeper than they look because “of the lack of timely appropriations” for fiscal 2019, which forced the White House to rely on “placeholders” for agencies such as NASA and Agriculture. Its analysts called the R&D cuts “the toughest… in decades.”

The Union of Concerned Scientists highlighted the proposed elimination of the EPA’s Global Climate Change Research Office and the proposed cuts of nearly 50 percent at Interior’s Climate Adaptation Science Center. “The president’s budget signals a clear antipathy towards action on climate change, with a host of cuts to climate research, adaptation, and even energy efficiency and renewable energy,” wrote Executive Director Kathleen Best. “You be the judge. Would President Trump’s budget result in a better America? Better for the health, safety, and livelihoods of the American people? Or perhaps it’s simply better for a select group of special friends and special interests.”