Digesting The White House’s ‘Devastating’ Cuts To Science Funding

9:03 minutes

President Trump. Credit: Sean Spicer, via Twitter.

The White House’s final proposal for the 2018 budget is in, and the numbers have some scientists worried. If Congress passes the budget as it’s written, the National Institutes of Health would lose $7.7 billion, or 22 percent of its entire budget. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science would lose 17 percent of its funding for research into nuclear physics, environmental and biological science, and other programs. And the Department of Agriculture, which funds agricultural research, would lose up to 11 percent of a budget that is already far too small, according to Rush Holt, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

[Trump unveils a proposal with massive budget cuts to science.]

Holt, a former member of Congress and also a physicist, joins Ira to run through the proposed cuts and what to keep an eye on as the budget process continues.

Segment Guests

Rush Holt

Rush Holt, a former congressman, is CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the executive publisher of the Science family of journals. He’s based in Princeton, New Jersey.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: If you heard a loud thudding sound on Tuesday, that might have been the nation’s scientists collectively dropping their jaws at the sight of the White House budget proposal for 2018. The Presidential initial skinny budget in March hinted at steep cuts to research programs, and the final numbers more than bear that out. $7.7 billion cut from the National Institutes of Health– that’s more than a fifth of its budget. Another 17% from the Department of Energy’s office of science. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention– hmm. The NSF, untouched in March– now it stands to lose 11% of its funds, about $800 million. Science advocates are up in arms. Former CDC director Tom Frieden tweeted that the cuts will increase deaths in America.

The good news for scientists? Congress will have the final say. My next guest has some insights on what might happen next. He’s Rush Holt, former congressman and plasma physicist, and now he’s the CEO of the AAAS, the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington. Welcome back, Rush.

RUSH HOLT: Good to be with you, Ira. I think you were looking for me a few minutes ago. I apologize. I must have dropped the call. It’s good to be with you.

IRA FLATOW: You’re here now. Should the science committee have been ready for numbers like this, based on the outline released in March?

RUSH HOLT: Well, the jaw dropping that you speak of was more in dismay than surprise. The OMB, the Office of Management and Budget, released what was known as a skinny budget. It was a sketch of the R&D budget, the Research and Development Budget in the various federal agencies. They released that a couple of months ago. It did not include any numbers for the National Science Foundation and some other areas, so it was not complete. But what it showed was a lack of attention, I guess you’d say, to science research.

And so scientists and budget watchers, I think, are not surprised by what happened. But the size of the proposed cuts really has left everyone dismayed. Because it shows that at least somebody there in the Administration just doesn’t get it about research. Evidently they don’t seem to understand how important this is to our future economic growth. And this is a budget– the overall budget depends on really remarkably large growth in the overall economy. And yet they seem to be oblivious to the fact that it is research and development that is one of the principal drivers of future growth.

IRA FLATOW: Well not only that, but they’re talking about the health of people. How do you justify cutting 20% of the NIH budget?

RUSH HOLT: Well, security, agriculture, as well as public health. 10% and 20% cuts, or in the case of the advanced energy projects– these innovative energy projects– 100% cuts. In other words, it would be slated for elimination. Those are hard for an agency to sustain and hard to recover from. I mean, even if a year or two later, they wanted to put more money back in, if they maybe had overestimated how much of a cut an agency could tolerate and they wanted to make a correction, it’s hard to do that. You’ve lost the graduate students. You’ve failed to get the equipment that is up to date, and so forth.

So the suddenness of this is as bad as the size of it.

IRA FLATOW: Any rate, there are interesting little weird cuts in there. I mean, ARPA-E, which is research on energy, getting cut. I mean, it’s hard to–

RUSH HOLT: Well, and not just cut– eliminated.

IRA FLATOW: Eliminated.

RUSH HOLT: And so non-defense research and development overall would be down not quite 20%, not quite $1 in $5. And basic research overall would be down about 17%. And facilities and equipment, more than 20%. So these are large, and it’s the research in the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Geological Survey, USGS, that is, and the NOAA Atmospheric Research, and US Department of Agriculture, Department of Energy. And Department of Energy– many people think, well, this is new energy technologies, wind turbines, or whatever. But the Department of Energy Office of Science also is the place where high energy physics, particle accelerators, things like that are funded. And of course, the National Science Foundation would take a big hit.

Now let me quickly say, this is only a proposal. I think every year people make too much of the President’s budget proposal. Because it is only that. It is only a proposal. No president– not this president or any president– appropriates money for research and development, or anything else. Congress does that. So we mustn’t forget that. And already this year, we’ve seen a clear example in what’s known as the omnibus appropriations, which were passed a month or so ago, where the appropriators in Congress, and then the full Congress by vote, essentially ignored what the Administration, the Office of Management and Budget, had proposed. They had proposed earlier this year a 20% cut in the NIH research budget. And instead in the omnibus appropriations, Congress came through with an increase.

IRA FLATOW: Let me just–

RUSH HOLT: Similarly with ARPA-E.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Let me just remind everybody that this is “Science Friday” from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with Dr. Rush Holt, a former congressman and now head of the AAAS. So don’t give up hope yet, is what you’re saying.

RUSH HOLT: Yeah. Congress has shown– and based on some statements this week already in response to this– leaders in Congress have shown that they intend to maintain their prerogative to make appropriations. And they’ve come as close as– they’ve come close to saying well, the way they used to say it on Capitol Hill, the president proposes, Congress disposes. And in particular, some budgets are declared dead on arrival. This probably is such a budget. But what’s troubling– yeah, I’m sorry, Ira. Yes?

IRA FLATOW: No, I’m just trying to figure out a little bit more and honing it down. Is it possible that it’s not that the Administration doesn’t get it, but they just disagree? They think that science is for big, wealthy people?

RUSH HOLT: Of course. I’m sure there are some who think that this is all about full employment for people in lab coats, or that’s what scientists want. No, I don’t think any– there are very few people who go into science to get rich. It is an understanding that if you put in the long hours and the hard work, you can actually improve people’s lives. Maybe not quickly, maybe not in a easily predictable way, but research and development really pays off in the quality of life. And we obviously have to work harder to make that point. Because it’s just hard for a lot of scientists to understand how anybody could be so far off. We’re nowhere close to optimal funding for research and development. I mean, we would get diminishing marginal returns only if the budget were– I don’t know– probably two or three times what it is now. So to cut it when it’s nowhere close to optimal even now just makes no sense.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Dr. Holt.

RUSH HOLT: It’s only a proposal.

IRA FLATOW: Yes. We’ll check back with you later, a few months from now, OK?

RUSH HOLT: OK, Ira. Thank you.

IRA FLATOW: Rush Holt, AAAS CEO, former member of Congress, and a plasma physicist. He knows of what he speaks.

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