People, planet, and the path ahead
This satellite image from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows a powerful nor'easter over the US on March 14. NOAA faces climate-research budget cuts under a Trump administration proposal. The cuts would affect coastal and marine research. The impact on the agency's weather tracking is less clear, although the proposal calls for some 'annual savings' in that area.
NOAA via AP | Caption

Climate science slashed in Trump budget. Why does that matter?

Finding the patterns

America has a history of funding basic science at the federal level, on the notion that it pays off for society. The Trump budget challenges that view – including on climate research. 

A fear among scientists for months is now budget-proposal fact: Donald Trump wants to see deep cuts to federal science funding – with research on climate change a particular target.

President Trump’s federal budget plan seeks to eliminate many climate change programs outright, and cuts others sharply.

•Four NASA climate-related projects would be terminated entirely.

•The Environmental Protection Agency, which does significant climate science, would see its overall budget slashed 31 percent.

•At the Commerce Department, the proposal “zeroes out over $250 million in targeted National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) grants and programs supporting coastal and marine management, research, and education.”

Some caveats apply: NASA’s Earth Sciences division escaped with lighter overall cuts than advance rumors had implied. But the overall pattern is a stark rejection of the idea that the rise of heat-trapping gases in Earth’s atmosphere, caused by human activities, calls for better understanding and response.

With Congress preparing to weigh the Trump administration agenda, the plan raises a question: Just how important is federal funding to understanding Earth’s climate?

The answer is inevitably somewhat subjective. No one level of funding is automatically correct in any government program. But although climate science funding has fluctuated over the years, one Congressional Research Service report has tallied numbers suggesting that levels have remained within a fairly steady band throughout the presidencies of Republican George W. Bush and Democrat Barack Obama.

Many scientists say climate change is one of those arenas where data-collection needs – including from satellites – are so vast that funding at a national-government scale is crucial.

“Those are massive sets of data, massive collections,” says Barbara Schaal, board chair of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “I think only a government can really afford to do that.” [Editor's note: This paragraph has been updated to correct the spelling of Dr. Schaal's name.]

Prominent role since World War II

In fact, the government’s large role in climate science – NASA’s Earth Sciences projects alone total some $2 billion a year currently – stem from a broadly embraced view that federal funding of basic science can deliver benefits that are well worth the costs.

After seeing the payoff of science tied to the military effort in World War II, the federal government made a conscious effort to support basic research that, often, private industry and philanthropists are unwilling or unable to do.

“The importance of science and technology innovation in advancing goals has long been well understood on both sides of the aisle, albeit with different ideas for how to advance those goals,” John Holdren, a former scientific adviser to Barack Obama, said at the recent annual meeting of the AAAS in Boston.

Even before Trump, programs like Medicare and Social Security have been taking up a rising share of the federal budget, and overall funding for research and development has been squeezed for more than a decade.

What Trump is proposing, though, marks a radical pivot away from science, affecting everything from medical research to new energy technologies.

'A waste of your money'

The u-turn may be starkest on climate change, an issue where key Trump appointees have rebuffed the scientific consensus and are seeking to roll back policy responses as well as research.

“We’re not spending money on that anymore,” Trump budget director Mick Mulvaney said this week. “We consider that to be a waste of your money.”

In the field of climate research, scientists say the government is almost completely responsible for ground-level monitoring and data collection relating to Earth systems like oceans and the atmosphere. The data, in turn, are essential for detecting and analyzing changes in the Earth’s climate, as well as short-term forecasts for things like water availability and extreme weather events.

Details of climate-science items in the Trump budget include:

•At NASA, it would terminate four satellite missions, studying carbon dioxide, geomagnetic storms, oceans and aerosols, and the feedback between radiation and climate. NASA’s Earth science research grants would also be reduced.

•At NOAA, beyond the zero-out of marine-related programs, the implications aren’t fully clear: The document talks of maintaining satellite weather-forecasting capabilities, but also talks of cost savings, efficiencies, and relying more on “commercially provided data.” Overall, the Commerce Department (where NOAA resides) faces a 16 percent proposed cut.

•The Energy Department sees a $900 million reduction in basic research. Its Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), an Obama-backed effort spurring clean-energy technologies, is eliminated because “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research.”

Impact at universities

Behind all this, another layer of impacts is this: Federal funding for science is deeply connected with higher education. Individual scientists at universities and national laboratories are often reliant on federal dollars to do their research, and that funding often finances graduate student education as well.

“What’s unique to the US is to fund a researcher but also to employ and train graduate students,” says Tobin Smith, vice president for policy at the Association of American Universities. “It’s one of the reasons we’ve attracted so many bright students in the US and around the world.”

So the Trump budget plan, if carried out, would have ripple effects on US campuses, at places like the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, where Scott Rupp is a forest ecologist.

He says that “probably 85 to 90 percent” of his personal research – mostly done in the summer months when he’s not teaching – comes from federal agencies like the US Geological Survey and the Bureau of Land Management.

Both those agencies are in the Interior Department, which faces a 12 percent proposed cut in the Trump budget.

The Alaska Climate Science Center, an Interior-funded group that Rupp directs, analyzes a wide range of climate impacts – knowledge that can help Alaskans including land and wildlife managers and Native subsistence hunters.

While Congress is a long way from approving a final budget, Rupp says the ACSC is now expecting a “fairly significant budget cut” for this fiscal year, after three years of relatively flat funding.

That would likely mean “a lack of important information that people here in state of Alaska need and require,” he says.

“There will be fewer graduate students able to pursue a science career, [and] there’ll be some full-time technical staff who lose their jobs,” adds Rupp, who typically employees one to four grad students each time he gets a research grant.

One student with a grant

Indeed, some scientists are hurrying to secure federal grants while they’re available, says Mia Bennett, a PhD candidate at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I was in Alaska last week for a meeting, and one researcher [was] trying really hard to get a grant proposal in as soon as possible,” she adds.

Ms. Bennett, who is researching development in Arctic and how it is affected by climate change, has been paying for her research in large part through a $44,000 annual grant from the National Science Foundation. The NSF is another big funder of climate research, and could also face cuts under Trump, although it was not itemized in the budget proposal.

Bennett’s research itself relies on federal data – night-time satellite imagery from NASA and NOAA. While Bennett mostly uses the satellite data to analyze changes in economic activity in Arctic regions, other researchers have been using it to help estimate carbon emissions.

Wide ripples from data gathering

As Bennett’s research hints, the basic monitoring and analysis performed by the federal government has numerous applications on the ground.

State officials in California have used other NASA satellite imagery to track water use across the state, according to an agency report on spinoff uses of their technology and data. Data collected by other federal agencies have helped to, among other things, forecast flooding along the Red River of the North between Minnesota and North Dakota, redevelop an oil supply road in Louisiana vulnerable to flooding and storm surges, and monitor forest changes and wildfire potential in southwestern Colorado.

However the budget battle plays out, some analysts say it’s not realistic to expect the private sector to fund a big share of America's basic research, climate science included, since companies are more focused on efforts that lead directly toward marketable products.

“Private industry isn’t going to fund basic research because it’s not going to capture the benefits, the shareholders wouldn’t allow it,” says Marc Kastner, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance.

In the case of weather data, private companies “all use NOAA data,” says Dr. Schaal at the AAAS. "So when someone says, 'Just cut off funding for NOAA because we can get weather forecasts from,' that doesn't work."