Science Policy & Funding News

White House R&D Priorities Differ from Its Budget Requests

The administration’s top R&D priority areas are American military superiority, security, prosperity, energy dominance, and health.

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A Trump administration memorandum on research and development (R&D) priority areas for upcoming fiscal year (FY) 2019 includes some laudable goals, but those goals are not reflected in earlier White House budget proposals, and they ignore climate change and the environment, according to policy experts.

The administration’s top R&D priority areas are American military superiority, security, prosperity, energy dominance, and health, according to the 17 August memo. “American leadership in science and technology is critical to achieving this Administration’s highest priorities: national security, economic growth, and job creation,” notes the four-page document, which provides guidance to federal agencies and departments as they formulate budget submissions to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for FY 2019. That fiscal year runs from 1 October 2018 to 30 September 2019.

The memo, which encourages a focus on R&D investments that are “budget neutral,” was signed by OMB director Mick Mulvaney and Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). The White House still lacks an OSTP director and science adviser.

A Focus on Priority Areas

To meet the military superiority priority, the memo calls on agencies to invest in R&D that can support “the military of the future,” and it encourages programs with dual-use potential that can be leveraged for nonmilitary uses. Regarding the security priority, agencies should invest in R&D to protect critical infrastructure from physical and cyber attacks, according to the document, which notes the need to develop technologies to mitigate impacts of “natural and adversarial threats and hazards.”

For the R&D priority on prosperity, the memo states, “Federal investment in R&D plays an important supporting role in America’s economic growth. Properly executed, it can lead to job creation.” The section on energy dominance states that “development of domestic energy sources should be the basis for a clean energy portfolio composed of fossil, nuclear, and renewable energy sources.”

Agencies should ensure that proposed new research programs “are based on sound science, do not duplicate existing R&D efforts, and have the potential to contribute to the public good,” according to the memo. The memo states that agencies should identify existing R&D programs that the private sector could execute more efficiently and consider modifying or ending federal involvement in these cases. The document also notes that agencies should give priority to funding basic and early-stage applied research that often involves greater uncertainty and less economic incentive for private sector investment.

Federal agencies should coordinate, promote, and plan their R&D programs through the White House National Science and Technology Council, according to the memo. Additionally, the memo urges agencies to incorporate science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education into their programs and “give priority to policies and actions that place an emphasis on expanding the STEM workforce to include all Americans,” including women and other underrepresented groups.

Laudable Goals, but Where’s the Beef?

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee, told Eos that the memo “spells out many laudable goals,” including supporting R&D that strengthens national security, economic prosperity, and health and expanding the participation of women and other underrepresented groups in STEM fields. However, she questioned where the administration has put those goals into action.

“While laudable, the goals stated in this memo are not reflected in the President’s actual FY 2018 budget proposal, which instead aims to eliminate ARPA-E [the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy], slash basic and applied research programs based on ideology, not ‘sound science,’ cut investments in biomedical R&D by 20 percent, and stifle American innovation across the board,” Johnson stated. “I would urge the Administration to go back to the drawing board as it attempts to address the programs and investments that will determine our country’s future, beginning with filling the position of Director of OSTP and the OSTP staff required to do the interagency coordination called for in the memo.”

What the Memo Doesn’t Mention

Michael Henry, director of science policy at the American Institute of Physics, told Eos that what is most interesting about the memo is what is not included. “There’s no mention of climate change or Earth observations, which the Obama budget memos consistently highlighted,” he said. “And there’s nothing about space science or NASA, which the administration prioritized when it largely spared it from the deep cuts proposed for other civilian science agencies.”

Henry said that the memo’s call for R&D investments to be budget neutral “is a clear signal the administration will continue to constrain growth in R&D in future budget requests. This is consistent with the White House’s 2018 budget request, which called for deep cuts to a number of science agencies and research programs.” He added that “the administration doesn’t answer how America keeps its edge as the world leader in R&D and innovation at the same time as it slashes government support for R&D at this scale.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2017), White House R&D priorities differ from Its budget requests, Eos, 98, https://doi.org/10.1029/2017EO080917. Published on 29 August 2017.
© 2017. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0