Science funding (rant alert!)

The Trump administration released its first budget outline today. As far as I have been able to keep track, here are the proposed budget changes for science funding by agency:

  • NIH: -18% to science funding
  • DOE: -20% to science funding
  • NOAA: -17% overall + elimination of one of their main research programs
  • EPA: -31% overall
    • -50% specifically to science programs
  • NSF: ??? (not mentioned)
  • NASA: -1% overall
    • -10% for Earth science this year
This is clearly not a comprehensive list of agencies that fund science. Notably absent (besides the NSF’s lack of mention) is the Department of Defense, which funds quite a bit of basic research and stands to gain overall from Trump’s budget outline. However, I couldn’t find anything specific about how much of that increase goes to research. Based on the specifics that we do have, I would say the signs are not good.
By my (very rough) math, the outlined budget changes are roughly on par with the sequester (remember that?) in terms of how bad it is for science funding. That was a one-time punitive measure meant to pressure Congress into coming to a budget agreement. The idea was basically, “science funding (among many other things) is something lots of people like, so we’re going to cut it (and those other things) if we can’t make a deal.” (Spoiler alert: it didn’t work.) Better explanation here by John Green.
This, on the other hand, is a reflection of the Trump administration’s viewpoint on science. The messages I’m getting are:
(1) We don’t care very much about science research.
(2) We really don’t like certain politically-charged areas of scientific research at all.
(3) We don’t think the American public will notice/care if we make these cuts.
What does this mean? For government-funded scientists (like myself; thanks, DoD and DOE!), it is obviously alarming. Research can be expensive! So less money means, in the short term, that we get to do less research. In the medium-ish term, it means fewer jobs for scientists. In the long term, less innovation, less economic growth, and the country (not to mention the world) is generally not as great a place.
For non-scientists, it might be a little harder to see the urgency of this problem. I’m not sure I’m the best person to convince people, so I’ll start by linking a blog post by Dr. M (a biomedical researcher) that is geared toward bridging the gap between scientists and non-scientists, and “Does Science Matter?” a New York Times opinion piece from 2003 that is depressingly relevant today. The answers to this question are usually focused on more “applicable” sciences like medical research and solid-state physics, but astrophysics, algebraic geometry, string theory…those sciences* matter too, and not only because they can (and have) lead to applications. Science helps us understand the world. It doesn’t care what political party you belong to or where you come from or what you look like (although, to be clear, individual scientists and the scientific establishment may care very much, exhibit systemic bias, and have a lot of work to do to make science more inclusive). Here’s Randall Munroe’s take:
Yes, science does matter. For all of us.
So, what can we do? Apart from the same stuff you’ve probably been hearing since the election (write/call your Congresspeople with civil and specific comments), which is still good advice, you can March for Science on April 22nd. The main march is in Washington, D.C., but there are also satellite marches in every state and worldwide.
Sources (besides the links in the main text):
*One could debate whether or not pure math is a “science,” but personally, I think the relationship to testable reality and benefits to humanity of pure math and certain areas of theoretical physics are roughly on a par (and I mean that as a compliment to both…at least, the second part of it…), so I welcome my mathematician friends into the “scientific fold” for the purposes of this discussion.

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