Reports circulated the day before the inauguration of Donald Trump that his first budget would propose the elimination of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts.
The Hill reported that those agencies were slated for elimination, according to a blueprint being shared by Trump transition officials as part of budget planning. The blueprint also suggests that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting be privatised and that some US Department of Energy science programmes face deep cuts.
The report could not be independently verified, but it was being viewed as credible by humanities and arts advocates – many of them within higher education – who were deeply distressed by the news.
Senior Trump administration officials have been working closely with the Republican Study Committee, a group of conservative budget hawks in Congress. The proposals outlined in the Hill report largely mirror those that the committee has been pushing.
A Republican Study Committee report offers this rationale (here in its entirety) for killing the NEA and NEH: “The federal government should not be in the business of funding the arts. Support for the arts can easily and more properly be found from non-governmental sources. Eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts would save taxpayers $148 million (£119 million) per year and eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities would save an additional $148 million per year."
Many political observers noted that, in the context of a federal budget of $3.899 trillion, the funds spent on the NEH and the NEA are a rounding error. But Trump and Republican leaders in Congress have pledged not to increase taxes while making substantial new investments in infrastructure, military spending and immigration matters, such as building a wall on the border with Mexico. The combination of those priorities may endanger spending on many programmes that are not entitlements designated to receive specific sums.
Many NEH grants involving higher education are small compared with those awarded by the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health. But these grants are frequently the most significant outside support available for humanities research and education. And the grants are particularly helpful to humanities departments at a time when many aren't receiving the kind of support professors say is needed.
A compilation of recent NEH grants includes awards to California State University East Bay to create a minor in religious studies, to Northwestern University for a fellowship to support work on a new critical edition of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II and to Little Big Horn College to create a programme collecting oral histories of the Native American Crow people for use in classrooms and elsewhere.
Stephen Kidd, executive director of the National Humanities Alliance, said humanities advocates have been preparing for the possibility of such proposals, given the views of some Trump appointees and some congressional leaders. But Kidd said he believes there is "deep appreciation" for the humanities, from Democrats and Republicans alike, and his group and others will fight any proposal to kill the endowments. "I don't believe that history and philosophy and art are partisan," he said.
Via email, Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said: "The NEH, along with the NEA, are the only federal agencies dedicated to cultivating and curating literary and cultural research and production. The research budget of the NEH is less than 1 per cent of the federal budget for scientific research, yet NEH grants provide catalytic effects that have multiplied throughout communities for 50 years now. I trust that the Congress will continue to value and fund these agencies. The MLA's members will be vigorously advocating for a robust NEH, which we need now more than ever."
James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said in a statement: "The AHA vigorously disputes the assertion that NEH's contributions to education, research and public culture in the United States constitute 'waste'. Members of the US Congress on both sides of the aisle understand and appreciate the value of the NEH, and the efficiency with which it leverages its very small budget."
Energy Department research
The reported cuts coming to Energy Department research programmes came up during a confirmation hearing for Rick Perry, the Trump nominee for energy secretary. The New York Times reported that Perry said he was unaware of these reports, and that he made a joke referencing the 2011 presidential debate during which he forgot which departments (including the one he'll now lead) he was promising to eliminate.
Of those reportedly planning cuts to science programmes, Perry said that "maybe they’ll have the same experience I had and forget that they said that".
Perry also used the confirmation hearing to make a reversal that may cheer some scientists. In the past, he has denied that climate change is real, despite a wide consensus among scientists, including many at the Energy Department.
“I believe the climate is changing. I believe some of it is naturally occurring, but some of it is also caused by man-made activity," he said. "The question is: how do we address it in a thoughtful way that doesn’t compromise economic growth, the affordability of energy or American jobs?"