News & Analysis Physics World  July 2017

US researchers unite against budget

Slash and burn US budget director Mick Mulvaney presents President Trump’s 2018 budget, which seeks a 13% reduction in research spending. (Jim Lo Scalzo / EPA / REX / Shutterstock)

The US scientific community is uniting in its opposition to the Trump administration’s 2018 proposals for the budget, which starts on 1 October. The budget proposal – a fleshed-out version of the “skinny” budget presented earlier this year (see June 2017) – would see government funding for research cut by 13% compared with the current figure, including a massive 30% reduction for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Other potential losers in the budget include the National Institutes of Health, which funds basic biomedical research and faces a reduction of 22%. The Department of Energy’s Office of Science stands to lose 17% of its spending power with its high-energy physics, nuclear physics and fusion energy programmes each set for cuts of around 19%. With just $63m planned for the ITER fusion experiment in France, a cut of that size would effectively end US participation in the facility.

The National Science Foundation’s budget, meanwhile, is slated to fall by 13% and the research budget of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s by 22%. Basic science at NASA, by contrast, stands to gain 3% more than its current budget but it will lose several Earth-observing programmes.

Analysts expect Congress, which has the authority to develop and approve national budgets, to make significant changes to the administration’s proposals. Nevertheless, the research community reacted swiftly to the budget announcement. A letter to Congressional leaders of both parties, signed by more than 170 scientific societies, universities and related organizations, asserts that the “drastic” cuts would “cripple the science and technology enterprise, severely harming discovery science programmes and critical mission agencies alike”. The letter urges Congress to reject the proposed cuts and to negotiate increased discretionary spending caps for next year and beyond.

Individual members of Congress are also participating in the protests. Illinois Democratic Representative Bill Foster, who is the only PhD physicist in Congress, organized a letter to the heads of science agencies, co-signed by 54 members of Congress, requesting details of potential job losses stimulated by the proposed budget.

The American Physical Society (APS), meanwhile, has encouraged its members to write to newspapers, engage on social media, and contact Congressional offices. Indeed, an article in the St. Louis Post Dispatch by a local physicist drew a response from Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, vice-chairman of the Republican Conference, who stated that he does not fully support the Trump budget.

Members of both parties in Congress, which has the constitutional responsibility for introducing spending legislation, traditionally favour research. “Congress has already shown that it recognizes the crucial role that science plays in US competitiveness,” notes APS president Laura Greene, who is chief scientist at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. On the other hand, leaders of the scientific community fear that the administration’s proposal could create an environment in which budget cutting becomes more acceptable.

Scientists’ reaction to the budget was similar to that for the Trump administration’s proposed withdrawal from the Paris climate change agreement, which has seen Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX and Tesla, and Disney chief executive Robert Iger resign from the president’s council of industrial advisers.

Peter Gwynne

Boston, MA