Trump Again Seeks Sweeping Budget Cuts to Science

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Publication date: 
21 March 2019

President Trump’s latest budget proposes to roll back large increases Congress recently provided for several science agencies and again targets environmental research and later-stage energy R&D programs for steep cuts.


GPO worker

A Government Publishing Office worker preparing the president’s budget request for fiscal year 2020.

(Image credit – GPO)

As part of a broader push to constrain nondefense spending, President Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 would sharply pare back science programs across the federal government. The distribution of the cuts is now coming into focus, and additional details will emerge in the coming days as agencies continue to release their full budget justifications.

The cuts resemble those the administration proposed in its previous two budget requests. Many of the steepest again target programs that fund environmental research and later-stage energy R&D. Others would essentially roll back increases that Congress provided over the past two budget cycles.

The chart below compares the budget request for selected agencies with the total increase Congress has provided each since fiscal year 2017. Details on proposals for programs within each agency and links to budget documents are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.

The recent increases were enabled by a budget agreement that raised statutory caps on defense and non-defense spending for fiscal years 2018 and 2019. Congress is now turning its attention to negotiating a budget agreement to raise the spending caps that currently remain in effect for the next two years.

‘Industries of the future’ prioritized

The chapter of the budget that catalogs R&D spending across the government provides a few details on the administration’s prioritization of research tied to “industries of the future.” President Trump used this phrase in his latest State of the Union Address, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy shortly afterward identified four corresponding priority areas: artificial intelligence (AI), quantum information science (QIS), advanced communication networks, and advanced manufacturing.

The chapter states the budget includes approximately $430 million for QIS across the Department of Defense, Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, and National Institute of Standards and Technology. For AI, it indicates that DOE, NSF, NIST, and the National Institutes of Health would together spend approximately $850 million under the proposal. (DOD’s contribution is not listed, though the department’s budget includes $927 million for a new Joint Artificial Intelligence Center and an advanced image recognition project.)

Elaborating on defense R&D priorities, the chapter lists “trusted and assured microelectronics; hypersonics research for non-nuclear weapons; kinetic and non-kinetic technologies able to disrupt and defeat missiles prior to launch; missile detection, defeat, and defense capabilities; and R&D to advance the Industries of the Future.” DOD has embarked on major initiatives in these areas and some civilian agencies are planning complementary investments. For instance, DOE and NSF’s budgets both call out microelectronics R&D as a priority area.

Highlights for selected agencies

DOE: As in the previous two budget requests, the picture for DOE programs is very mixed. The administration proposes to continue ramping up a comprehensive modernization of the U.S.’ nuclear weapon stockpile and associated infrastructure, which are maintained by the National Nuclear Security Administration. While the budget proposes to again pare back NNSA’s inertial confinement fusion program, it includes substantial increases for other science and engineering activities associated with the Stockpile Stewardship Program. Meanwhile, in line with the administration’s policy of prioritizing basic research over later-stage energy R&D activities, DOE’s applied energy programs are again slated for steep cuts. For the third year in a row, the administration proposes to eliminate the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy. The Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy would receive about a tenth of its current budget, while the Office of Fossil Energy would be cut by a quarter. A recent spending surge for the Office of Nuclear Energy would also be reversed.

The Office of Science’s budget would be rolled back by about $1 billion, bringing it to just above its level in fiscal year 2017. The Offices of Biological and Environmental Research and Fusion Energy Sciences both face the steepest cuts — about 30 percent each — though their existing user facilities would continue operating and the ITER fusion project would receive $107 million, the highest level the administration has requested to date. At the other end of the spectrum, the Advanced Scientific Computing Research budget would decrease only slightly, remaining steady at its historically elevated level to support the development of exascale-class computing systems, a top priority for the department. Cuts to Nuclear Physics, Basic Energy Sciences, and High Energy Physics range from about 10 to 20 percent.

NSF: Cuts are distributed across NSF’s research directorates, though the exact amounts are not known because Congress has not yet signed off on the agency’s operating plan for fiscal year 2019. Compared to fiscal year 2018 levels, the cuts appear to fall hardest on the Math and Physical Sciences Directorate and the Geosciences Directorate, though the budget notes both received significant one-time funding that year for infrastructure upgrades. Funding for major research facility construction would decrease by a quarter to $223 million, with the Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope and Regional Class Research Vessel projects reaching completion. Within that amount, the agency requests $33 million to support a major upgrade to the Large Hadron Collider and $45 million to launch a new agency-wide program for building mid-scale research infrastructure.

NASA Science: As one of the administration’s more favored civilian agencies, NASA’s budget would mostly reverse the significant boost its Science Mission Directorate received for fiscal year 2019. It would leave in place much of the increase Congress provided for the Heliophysics and Planetary Science Divisions, while omitting funding for a lander mission to Europa. The administration also once again proposes to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, leaving the Astrophysics Division with a 20 percent smaller budget, while fully funding the James Webb Space Telescope. In line with the previous two budget requests, NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement would be eliminated and the Earth Science Division cut by just under 10 percent.

DOD: Overall funding for the Department of Defense’s Research, Development, Test, and Evaluation (RDT&E) accounts would continue its rapid rise above already historically high levels to crest the $100 billion mark. However, early-stage R&D would not share in the increase, with the Basic Research, Applied Research, and Advanced Technology Development accounts instead collectively decreasing 12 percent to $14 billion, near their fiscal year 2017 total.

NIST: Echoing last year’s proposal, NIST’s research facility construction budget would be halved and overall funding for research programs would drop 16 percent to $612 million. For the third year, the administration again proposes to eliminate the Manufacturing Extension Partnership program.

NOAA: The office that houses weather, climate, and oceans research programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration would drop 40 percent to $335 million under the proposal.


BCA Spending Caps

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Spending caps set to snap back

Absent an agreement to raise the caps for fiscal year 2020 set by the Budget Control Act, overall defense spending will drop 11 percent and non-defense spending will drop 9 percent. However, since 2013, Congress has always reached an agreement to raise the caps for two years at a time and it is expected to strike another such deal this year.

In the meantime, Congress has begun to review the budget requests for particular agencies. Next week, leaders of DOE, NSF, NASA, and NOAA will appear before the House Appropriations Committee at separate hearings. Such events provide a window into congressional support for science programs. Several influential appropriators have already criticized the across-the-board cuts to science and other programs in the non-defense budget.

“President Trump has somehow managed to produce a budget request even more untethered from reality than his past two,” said House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey (D-NY) in a statement. “This irresponsible proposal slashes investments in America’s working families to unworkable budget cap levels, resulting in cuts of 9 percent to programs like early childhood education, job training, law enforcement, safe drinking water, and scientific and medical research.”

“In order for us to complete an orderly and responsible fiscal year 2020 appropriations process, Congress and the President must quickly agree on a framework that raises caps for defense and non-defense investments alike,” she concluded.

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