September 24, 2021

Trump’s 2021 budget drowns science agencies in red ink, again

A U.S. House of Representatives staffer handles copies of President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2021 budget request to Congress.

REUTERS/Leah Millis

It’s another sea of red ink for federal research funding programs in President Donald Trump’s latest budget proposal. The 2021 budget request to Congress released today calls for deep, often double-digit cuts to R&D spending at major science agencies.

At the same time, the president wants to put more money into a handful of areas—notably artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum information science (QIS)—to create the new technology needed for what the budget request calls “industries of the future.”

Here is a rundown of some of the numbers from the budget request’s R&D chapter. (The numbers reflect the portion of each agency’s budget classified as research, which in most cases is less than its overall budget.)

  • National Institutes of Health: a cut of 7%, or $2.942 billion, to $36.965 billion
  • National Science Foundation (NSF): a cut of 6%, or $424 million, to $6.328 billion
  • Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Office of Science: a cut of 17%, or $1.164 billion, to $5.760 billion
  • NASA science: a cut of 11%, or $758 million, to $6.261 billion
  • DOE’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy: a cut of 173%, which would not only eliminate the $425 million agency, but also force it to return $311 million to the U.S. Department of the Treasury
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA’s) Agricultural Research Service: a cut of 12%, or $190 million, to $1.435 billion
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology: a cut of 19%, or $154 million, to $653 million
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: a cut of 31%, or $300 million, to $678 million
  • Environmental Protection Agency science and technology: a cut of 37%, or $174 million, to $318 million
  • Department of Homeland Security science and technology: a cut of 15%, or $65 million, to $357 million
  • U.S. Geological Survey: a cut of 30%, or $200 million, to $460 million

There are a few budgetary bright spots. One is USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the source of most of the department’s competitive grants to academic research, which would grow by 11%, or $95 million, to $968 million. Within that institute, its competitive grants program—now at $425 million—would have $100 million earmarked for AI and machine learning. Likewise, the president is asking NSF to fit large increases for AI and QIS into its shrunken research account.

Overall, federal spending on research would drop by 9%, or $13.78 billion, to $142.185 billion. The government’s investment in scientific infrastructure—large facilities and special equipment—would plunge by 40%, to $3.6 billion. Spending on basic research would fall by 6%, or $2.822 billion, to $40.638 billion.

As always, Congress will have the final say on spending for the 2021 fiscal year, which begins on 1 October. In recent years, lawmakers have largely rejected the Trump administration’s proposed cuts and instead increased major science agency budgets, or at least held them flat.

In 2021, however, Congress will have limited room to increase spending, because of a budget deal reached in July 2019 that places caps on both civilian and defense spending. In particular, it would allow only a $2.5 billion increase in all domestic discretionary spending, for example, or only 0.4% more than the $632 billion being spent in fiscal 2020.

*Correction, 11 February, 10:50 a.m.: Cuts to overall federal research spending and basic research spending were mislabeled. This story has been corrected.

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