Instrument to monitor forest responses to drought.
In the western United States, researchers supported by NSF small business funding deployed an “Internet of Trees” that includes instruments like this one to monitor forest responses to drought. The White House’s proposed FY 2018 budget plan would sharply reduce NSF funding, including a cut of 6.5% to the Small Business Innovation Research Program. Credit: Arable Labs Inc. Photo courtesy National Science Foundation

The budget for the National Science Foundation (NSF) decreases 11% under the Trump administration’s funding proposal for fiscal year (FY) 2018 that was released last week. That’s a reduction that scientists say takes NSF in the wrong direction at a time when science research is needed more than ever to help with a range of issues, including natural hazards, national security, and boosting the economy.

The administration’s budget for FY 2018, which begins on 1 October, provides $6.65 billion to NSF, down from the FY 2017 enacted level of $7.47 billion. The cuts to NSF are part of an effort by the Trump administration to reduce discretionary funding to offset increases in other areas that the administration deems higher priority, such as military funding.

“The FY2018 proposed budget reflects the Administration’s emphasis on the safety and security of the American people. This request protects NSF’s core values as an agency, including cross-directorate participation, which allows for cooperation across scientific disciplines,” NSF director France Córdova said at a 23 May budget briefing at NSF headquarters in Arlington, Va. “While tough choices had to be made, you’ll see that we are continuing to selectively invest in fundamental research and talented people who make the innovative discoveries that will transform our future.”

In Congress’s Court

Congress, which appropriates funds and which demonstrated bipartisan support for science in the FY 2017 budget that was signed into law on 5 May, now is examining the administration’s budget proposal for FY 2018. (Until 5 May, the federal government was funded under a continuing resolution (CR) for FY 2017.) The amount of funding the FY 2018 budget request allocates for NSF, adjusted for inflation, hasn’t been seen since FY 2002, according to an analysis by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

“We understand and appreciate the apprehension felt by many, particularly in the research community, caused by the potential effects of adjusted funding levels.”

“We’ve carefully looked at all our programs and taken the approach to reset some of our investments closer to the levels you would have seen in NSF’s budget a decade ago,” Córdova said at the briefing.

“We understand and appreciate the apprehension felt by many, particularly in the research community, caused by the potential effects of adjusted funding levels,” she told attendees.

“Shortsighted” Cuts

Numerous scientists told Eos that they are disappointed by the cuts.

Scott Doney, department chair in marine chemistry and geochemistry and senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, called them “shortsighted.” The investment in basic science by NSF Geoscience “pays off manyfold for the public, communities, and businesses,” he told Eos. Research supported by NSF Geoscience helps society to better prepare for natural hazards and “provides critical insights on our changing world that we depend upon for food, water, energy, and other resources,” he added.

Antonio Busalacchi, president of the Boulder, Colo.–based University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, added that basic research “is the foundation of technologies that Americans rely on every day, and I am deeply concerned that cutting it puts our future economic growth and national security at risk.” He told Eos, “This budget threatens to undermine U.S. preeminence across a wide range of disciplines that are of vital importance, not just to our nation but to global institutions that benefit all of society.”

Funding Drops for Geosciences and Other NSF Programs

In the proposed spending plan, the account for research and related activities (R&RA) drops to $5.362 billion, down 11% from $6.03 billion.

Within R&RA, the Directorate for Geosciences receives $783 million, 10.7% below the CR level of $877 million. (NSF does not yet have its operating plan for the recently enacted FY 2017 budget, so current funding levels for each of NSF’s directorates and their programs remain undetermined and therefore not yet available to compare to the proposed FY 2018 figures, Scott Borg, acting assistant director for Geosciences at NSF, told Eos. NSF officials and outside budget analysts provided comparisons instead to CR levels, noting that FY 2017 enacted levels will likely prove to be similar to those in the CR.)

NSF’s education and human resources account comes in for the biggest percentage decrease within NSF, dropping to $761 million, down 14% compared to the FY 2017 enacted budget.

Córdova said that NSF remains committed to supporting fundamental research and the development of the next generation of researchers but that the agency would need to develop new approaches, including scientific partnerships to leverage federal investments among government, academic, industrial, and other entities. She added that the budget protects NSF’s core values as an agency, including cross-directorate participation that allows for cooperation across scientific disciplines.

The Budget “Is About What We Can Do”

“This budget is not about what we can’t do, it’s about what we can do, and there is lots and lots that we can do for the American public,” Córdova said.

In an interview with Eos, Borg said NSF is “committed to making the best investments possible [in research], and the fact of the matter is there will be fewer investments.”

He said that “program officers are going to be telling some more, well-qualified people at good institutions around the country that we lack sufficient funds to fund their particular research. So the success rate will go down a bit. And those are tough decisions, I think, that are going to be faced in the future.”

Stomping on the Brakes

“Trump’s proposal to slash NSF funding by 11% is like stomping on brakes when we should be flooring the accelerator for science.”

The budget cuts to NSF are the research and development “equivalent of eating intellectual seed corn: shortsighted and self-destructive,” Kim Landsbergen, associate professor of biology and environmental science at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, told Eos. “American investment in science and discovery has been the engine of our success since this country began,” Landsbergen said.

“Trump’s proposal to slash NSF funding by 11% is like stomping on brakes when we should be flooring the accelerator for science,” tweeted Andrew Ng, cochairman and cofounder of Coursera, an education-focused technology company based in Mountain View, Calif.

Daniel Peppe, associate professor and graduate program director in the Geosciences Department of Baylor University in Waco, Texas, told Eos that now, when there are significant changes to Earth’s climate, is the wrong time to slash NSF funding. In particular, “significant cuts to Geoscience funding will prevent great, valuable, and important science from being funded, which will result in us taking a huge step backward in scientific research and discovery that will take years to recover from,” he said.

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer


Showstack, R. (2017), Trump budget would set National Science Foundation back a decade, Eos, 98, Published on 31 May 2017.

Text © 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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