President Donald Trump’s dismissiveness toward climate change during his campaign has already earned him few fans in the scientific community. But his budget proposal to Congress earlier this month may be his most substantial attack on American science to date. The extensive cuts to research, science, and health budgets are more than an affront to how science is valued in American society, they also will yield profound, concrete, and long-term repercussions on the country’s economy, quality of life, and standing on the international stage.
Trump’s budget request for the 2018 fiscal year entails deep cuts in spending for most government institutions other than the military, but federal science agencies would be hit especially hard. The proposal calls for an 18 percent cut to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), cutting 5.8 billion dollars from its current budget of 31.7 billion. Even without taking inflation into account, this would reduce the NIH budget to its lowest level in 15 years. The Association of American Medical Colleges said the budget cuts would “cripple the nation’s ability to support and deliver” vital biomedical research.
A new study in the journal Science quantifies the impact of federally funded biomedical research over three decades, finding that nearly 10 percent of NIH grants led directly to patents for new medicines and technologies, and nearly one third led to articles later cited by patents in the private sector.
One of the study’s authors, MIT professor Pierre Azoulay, cautions against a view that NIH-funded biomedical research is “just a parlor game between academics with no ramifications for the real world and the development of new medicines,” adding “that view is not correct.”
Another 20 percent cut targets the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science. The NIH and the DOE, along with the National Science Foundation (NSF), are the primary sources of funding for basic research in the U.S. – research that pushes for a better understanding of our world, and is responsible for many of the innovations and progress seen in the last 50 years. Studies of the magnetism of atomic nuclei paved the way for MRI, an innovation that has changed the face of medicine all over the world. Studies to test Einstein’s theory of relativity led to the invention of atomic clocks, which in turn was necessary for GPS technology.
The Human Genome Project was funded by the NIH and DOE, and was key to the growth of the biotech industry in the U.S. – a sector responsible for 5.4 percent of the U.S. GDP in 2010. NSF supported research in 1996 led Stanford students to create Google, a company that was worth 498 billion dollars last year, and now employs 60,000 people. It is not hard to imagine how research like this, which might at first seem abstract, has been essential to building the economic backbone of the U.S.
Since the Second World War, federal money has been the primary source of funding for this kind of basic research, which has been at the heart of the flourishing U.S. economy and its role as an innovator in the global community. Taking resources from research will not only deprive Americans of innovations that improve quality of life, but will stunt economic growth at a time when more jobs are still sorely needed to help average Americans bounce back from the 2008 recession – a priority regularly acknowledged by Trump and his administration.
Furthermore, the cuts will come at a time when China and other Asian countries have been pouring money into their own research budgets in an effort to catch up with the United States. A 2016 report released by the National Science Board (NSB), a group appointed by the president that sets policy for the NSF, showed that China has been increasing their investment in scientific research and development. They argued the advancements were threatening America’s role as a leader in research.
According to the group’s vice chair, Kelvin Droegemeier, “International activities in R&D is a good thing. We support that. But the issue here is how the U.S. is faring in the face of that competition.”
The report showed that the US was still leading the field, accounting for 27 percent of the world’s total research spending. China accounted for 20 percent, having rapidly increased its research budget between 2003 and 2013 at a rate of almost twenty percent each year. In total, South, Southeast, and East Asian countries accounted for 40 percent of the world’s research expenditures.
“It really is about U.S. competitiveness and making sure we remain competitive. We’ve got to continue speeding up and accelerating our investments,” Droegemeier added.
Trump’s decision to cut research funding just over one year after the NSB report is puzzling, especially after signaling during his campaign that the U.S. should compete vigorously with China in the economic sphere. Trump should consider the direct connection between research, science, and economic success.
Trump’s ideas for the budget are far from written in stone. Budget appropriation is ultimately the responsibility of Congress, and so far the budget plans have not been widely embraced there. Many of the budget’s other domestic cuts are likely to prove unpopular in certain Republican circles, such as the elimination of the Appalachian Regional Commission, tasked with economic development in the largely Republican Appalachian states. Many conservative Republicans want to curb entitlement programs such as Medicare and Social Security, which Trump has promised to leave intact. Uneven Republican support means that Trump would have to court some Democrats to pass his budget, for which the research cuts, and the elimination of programs like the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities are likely to prove problematic.
Nonetheless, the proposal is a troubling window into the priorities of the new administration, which we can only hope will be tempered by experience and the need to compromise with the rest of the government.