President Donald Trump released his preliminary 2018 budget plan last night, and it’s a bloodbath for scientific research. Not only does Trump’s plan slash funding for the Environmental Protection Agency, as he promised, he’s also proposing cuts to agencies that have a history of receiving broad bipartisan support — like the National Institutes of Health, one of the biggest funders of biomedical research in the world.
Investing in research and development has been one of the primary forces driving the US economy since World War II. But that advantage has been shrinking lately, as other nations — especially China — are catching up. By slashing programs funding research on things like renewable energy, batteries, and the next big cancer drug, the Trump administration will hurt innovation — and the economy.
We get big returns on investment from publicly funded research. Every dollar spent by the National Institutes of Health typically generates $2.21 in additional economic output within 12 months, according to a 2010 article in Nature. Think of the internet, which was invented in part thanks to Defense Department scientists and engineers in the 1960s. Today, e-commerce sales are estimated to be a $394.9 billion business.
Here are some of the highlights — or, maybe, more accurately, the lowlights — of what his proposed budget means for science:
Chemical Safety Board funding eliminated completely
As its name might suggest, the Chemical Safety Board is an independent federal agency that investigates chemical accidents. It’s completed reports on high-profile accidents like the massive explosion at the fertilizer plant in West Texas and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. It’s still investigating incidents like the Airgas explosion in Florida last August.
Environmental Protection Agency funding cut by 31 percent
The biggest funding cut goes to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which is responsible for ensuring we breathe clean air and drink clean water. The EPA was created in 1970 with broad bipartisan support, as a response to the unacceptable environmental degradation that pervaded the country.
Through legislation like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, the EPA has ensured that Americans live in a relatively healthy environment. Thanks to the EPA’s work, from 1970 to 2015, national emissions of pollutants like lead, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide have declined by an average of 70 percent. These and more changes meant 160,000 people in the US didn’t die prematurely due to air pollution in 2010 alone. Since the 1980s, the EPA has also worked with local authorities to clean up some of the most polluted sites in the US, from landfills that caught fire to radioactive waste housed close to residential areas.
Department of Agriculture funding cut by 21 percent
The Department of Agriculture works with farmers, promotes food safety, and works on issues of housing in the more rural parts of the country. It funds research into natural resources and crops, and keeps us from eating bad food.
Thankfully, the proposed cuts won’t affect either crop subsidies, or the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program (food stamps). But the proposal does call to defund the part of the USDA that works with rural water and waste management. It also eliminates funding for rural business development and the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education program, which gives food to children living in poverty in other countries.
Department of Health and Human Services funding cut by 18 percent
The Department of Health and Human Services oversees several major agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and the Office for Civil Rights. Specifically, NIH funding would be reduced by 18 percent.
These agencies make sure our drugs are safe, provide funding for medical research, lead the way during public health outbreaks such as the ebola scare, and provide services to those struggling with drug addiction. (However, Trump’s budget does provide a $500 million increase in funding for efforts to stop the opioid epidemic.)
Half of the most transformative drugs of the last 25 years were made possible because of publicly funded research, according to a 2015 study. Antidepressants like Prozac were developed by pharmaceutical companies thanks to fundamental discoveries about neurotransmitters that were made by government-funded researchers. Another study in 2011 determined that “virtually all the important, innovative vaccines that have been introduced during the past 25 years” were created by public-sector research institutions.
Fogarty International Center eliminated completely
The Fogarty Center is the global health research arm of the National Institutes of Health and funds about 400 research and training projects across the country and abroad. Its scientists help control infectious disease outbreaks, like the Ebola epidemic that killed more than 10,000 people in Africa. It also studies the effects of climate change on disease outbreaks.
Interior Department cut by 12 percent
The Department of the Interior oversees millions of acres of public land and national parks across the United States, through agencies like the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the National Park Service (NPS). The NPS funds a lot of research in key areas like ecology, biological diversity, and climate change. As global climate warming continues, this research will become more and more critical to make sure we can protect the public wilderness Americans love.
The Interior Department also oversees the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which has been playing a key role in protecting threatened and endangered animals and plants since the Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. Bald eagles, for example — the US’s national symbol — almost entirely disappeared because of habitat loss, degradation, and illegal hunting. By 1963, fewer than 500 nesting pairs of bald eagles remained. In 1978, the Fish and Wildlife Service listed the eagles as endangered, allowing for their recovery. In 2007, the eagles were delisted.
Energy Department funding cut by 6 percent
The Department of Energy is responsible for monitoring the nuclear arsenal. It’s also a major funder of scientific research into renewable energy, the power grid, batteries, and so on. It’s DOE research that helped develop the optical storage technology we now use for virtually all data storage, as well as fluorescent lights and communication satellites. The proposal cuts 20 percent ($900 million) from the DOE’s Office of Science.
The prognosis for this department was already bad; its new leader, former Texas governor Rick Perry, once said he wanted to eliminate the department entirely. Under the proposal, research agencies such as the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program are eliminated entirely because the “private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research.” While it’s true that the private sector is indispensable to financing research, it’s important to keep in mind that many in industry started off with government jobs, or have benefitted from government funding in other ways. As just one example, Google began while Larry Page and Sergei Brin were working together funded by a National Science Foundation grant.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
There’s no overall number pinned to a cut for NOAA, but the proposal eliminates the agency’s $73 million Sea Grant, which is used to support ocean research. NOAA is responsible for general environmental research, warning us of dangerous weather using its extensive weather satellite system, and saving marine animals.
NASA funding cut by 0.8 percent
The space agency isn’t hit as badly as other federal programs, but it will still see a roughly $200 million budget cut if Trump’s plan is approved. On the chopping blocks are a mission to bring an asteroid piece into the vicinity of the Moon, a mission to land on Jupiter’s moon Europa, and several major Earth Science initiatives, including NASA’s carbon monitoring program. NASA’s education program, which received $115 million in 2016, would also be completely eliminated.
President Trump has been running a campaign promising to bring back jobs and boosting the US economy. Well, science jobs are jobs, too — and investing in research helps drive the US economy. One study found that 50 percent of economic growth in the US can be attributed to an increase in intensity of science and technology research here and in four other countries. That means slashing science, as the president’s 2018 budget plan does, puts the US’s future at risk.
To put all of this in context, Trump’s proposed budget also asks for a $2 billion down payment on his famous wall along the US-Mexico border. So, he doesn’t care about health safety, food safety, water access for rural Americans, chemical safety, wildlife, medical research, and energy research — but he is invested in spending money on a wall that he promised Mexico would pay for. If these cuts go through, they’ll be a disaster for science and the country.