How Trump's budget could affect basic research

The White House's 2018 budget proposal includes deep cuts to research and development that could aggravate what many see as an ongoing crisis in the country's research apparatus. 

Andrew Harnik/AP
Budget Director Mick Mulvaney speak to the media about President Trump's proposed fiscal 2018 federal budget in the Press Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, May 23, 2017.

Michael Kosterlitz is no stranger to rejection, especially when it comes to government funding.

His work in physics has earned him a distinguished post at Brown University and the 2016 Nobel Prize – but he’s been turned down so many times by the National Science Foundation that he says he has “given up” entirely on NSF grants.

The system that already turns away Nobel Prize winners may get even more competitive, as the White House’s 2018 budget proposes historic cuts to America’s research and development efforts. If adopted by Congress, leaders in the science community worry the austerity measures could deepen what some already consider an ongoing research crisis with lasting effects on the nation’s well-being. 

“Without continuing advances driven in part by federal R&D, we will suffer economically, we will suffer in the health domain, we will suffer in the security domain,” says John Holdren, senior science advisor during the Obama administration. 

The Trump administration’s proposed budget would reduce total research funding by almost 17 percent in 2018, the most severe proposal in more than 40 years. Among the cuts, an 11 percent reduction to the NSF and a 21 percent reduction to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget below omnibus funding levels stand out for those agencies’ wide-reaching and irreplaceable roles in basic research and medicine. 

Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney told reporters last week that the Trump administration was looking to cut back on the previous administration’s runaway spending, especially around climate science.

 “Does it mean that we are anti-science? Absolutely not,” he told reporters. “We are simply trying to get things back in order to where we can look at the folks who pay the taxes and say, ‘Look, yeah, we want to do some climate science, but we’re not going to do some of the crazy stuff the previous administration did.’ ”

But science community leaders say that the broadcloth slashing of NSF and NIH budgets would undermine the nation’s position as a global leader in science, technology, and medicine.

Pillars of US scientific prowess

Together the agencies have backed the work of more than 300 Nobel Prizes, played significant roles in the development of familiar technologies such as MRI machines, LASIK laser eye surgery, bar codes, and fiber optic cables, and illuminated both the darkness of space and the depths of the ocean.

Despite funding nearly two-thirds of all academic research, they now face cuts Dr. Holden calls “debilitating,” and that Joanne Carney, director of government relations for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) says would “devastate much of the federal science and technology enterprise.”

But Holden says it’s too early to panic: “We need to remember, before we completely tear our hair out, that this is just the administration’s proposal.” Ultimately, the buck stops with Congress, who he says has historically been quite supportive, especially of the NIH. “I don’t expect that Congress will accept a 20 percent cut.”

Yet even if Congress declines the administration’s request, no one is expecting a sudden windfall for the sciences. Recognizing shifting priorities, the NSF’s 2018 budget request of $6.65 billion undercut its 2016 funding by more than a tenth.

The White House proposal offers half a billion dollars below that requested level.

And competition for that selective investment is already fierce, with one in five NSF proposals and one in six NIH proposals winning funding. Some say an even more selective review process would raise the quality of the funded projects, but Ms. Carney of AAAS finds this suggestion “highly unlikely,” as grant committees already turn away many highly scoring proposals.

With so many basic research proposals already going unfunded, and other researchers despairing of winning what’s becoming more lottery than competition, some fear even more high-impact projects may be slipping through the cracks. You “just hope that if one has a brilliant idea, one’s situation is such that one can pursue it independently,” says Professor Kosterlitz. 

And when the lean research budget squeezes scientists, they have no choice but to seek out that independence. A 2013 nationwide survey of 3,700 researchers representing diverse disciplines found that more than half had turned away young scientists interested in joining their labs, and nearly one in five were considering moving abroad to continue their work. 

What’s more, cuts to federal investment in basic research sends a message to young people about the value that the nation places on the scientific process and could drive budding scientists into other careers, says Holdren.

The loss of scientific talent to other fields and other countries could have long-term consequences that ripple beyond universities and labs into the nation’s economy, security, and position as a global leader of innovation, says NSF director France Córdova.

Unforeseen benefits

The seemingly bizarre questions that basic research answers change the world in ways that scientists can’t even begin to imagine when drafting funding requests. 

Wondering what colliding black holes look like led to the development of the modern internet, and curiosity about how microbes survive in boiling hot springs gave rise to a crucial element of crime scene DNA testing. Even Charles Townes was told to stop wasting his department’s money just four months before completing the first laser.

The collaborative and open nature of basic research makes its economic effects hard to measure, but one survey of industry leaders concluded that 1 out of every 10 new commercial products relies on academic research, representing a return on investment of nearly 30 percent.

And while industry and academia have been shouldering more of the basic research burden in recent years, experts say no one can fully replace the government’s role. 

“The researchers we support explore fundamental scientific concepts, many of which have the potential to revolutionize industries,” says Dr. Córdova. “Typically, businesses cannot justify using their resources for such undirected, uncertain exploration. But without NSF-supported basic research, the private sector would suffer.”

Holdren agrees that companies can’t pick up all the slack: “The risks are too great, the returns are too uncertain, the time scales are too long.” After all, what cloud computing company could have realized the secret of efficient data distribution lay in how honey bees gather pollen? 

While the NSF may fund the occasional climate change musical, in 2016 alone it also produced a stronger material for artificial hips, the first thousand-core computer chip, and a mathematical crime forecasting model already at work in 50 police departments worldwide. And that’s even after turning away more than 30,000 proposals, whose potential may never be known.

“The nature of research and discovery is difficult to predict and may take decades before the benefits are realized. It involves taking risks and embracing a willingness to fail sometimes,” says Dr. Carney of AAAS.

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