US scientific leadership ‘may falter’ as Trump ponders cuts

Early signs of new administration’s attitude to research funding worry experts

March 14, 2017
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Reports that the Trump administration is seeking to cut the budget of a US agency responsible for environmental research by almost one-fifth have been seen as offering an early insight into how the new president will treat science funding.

The proposed 17 per cent reduction to the budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is tasked with understanding and predicting changes in climate, weather, oceans and coasts, was outlined in a four-page budget memo seen by The Washington Post.

Kelly Gallagher, director of the Center for International Environment and Resource Policy at Tufts University, said that this looked likely to be the first in a round of cuts at several agencies including Nasa, the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“It is clear that the Trump administration is prioritising military expansion at the expense of environmental protection, human health and education,” Professor Gallagher said.

She warned that many of the nation’s scientists faced an “uncertain future” on research funding. “As a consequence, US scientific leadership may falter,” she added.

Neal Lane, a senior fellow in science and technology policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, said that a 17 per cent budget cut would “cripple [the] Noaa’s ability to do its job”.

“The American people will suffer the consequences,” Professor Lane said, adding that the agency would be forced to cut back on critical services including hurricane prediction and research on the oceans and atmosphere.

But he added that the leaked figure was an “opening bid” that would be subject to much wrangling. The agency and the White House will now negotiate over any cut and it would need to be approved by Congress.

Federal research funding makes up less than 2 per cent of total annual spending in the US, Professor Lane said, but for the most part represents about 16 per cent of the non-defence discretionary funding pie, which has been under routine attack from the Republican-controlled Congress. “With a Republican White House, it will likely get squeezed,” he said.

“Republicans in Congress will likely push for deeper cuts to research programmes related to climate and some disciplines in the social and health sciences,” he added.

Professor Lane said that US scientists are “deeply concerned” about the willingness of the Trump administration “to simply dismiss scientific evidence as if it were hearsay and take other steps that directly damage American science”.

Details of the proposed cut emerged as Donald Trump issued a revised executive order placing a 90-day ban on the issuance of new visas, including student visas, to citizens of six Muslim-majority countries, triggering warnings that a key pipeline of academic talent would be cut off.

Max Boykoff, director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, warned that the proposed cut “imperils the value of US scientific research endeavours in the world” and compromises capacity for making evidence-based decisions.

“Rather than this being an inspiring time of hope for progress and advancements in the US scientific research community, it is a time where many are bracing in the uncertainty of the future,” he added.


Print headline: Scientists braced for cuts in the US

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