White House budget proposal tightens the screws on science, from space to salmon

Space Launch System
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s Space Launch System in flight. (NASA Illustration)

The White House’s $4.7 trillion spending plan for fiscal year 2020 aims to give a boost to the Space Force, but would dial down work on NASA’s Space Launch System, zero out the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, leave salmon in the lurch and slash science spending on other fronts.

When it comes to outer space, the brightest spotlight falls on lunar exploration and space commercialization — which is in line with the priorities of the National Space Council, headed by Vice President Mike Pence. And when it comes to earthly realms in science and technology, artificial intelligence and quantum computing shine.

It’s important to remember, however, that every year’s budget request is pronounced “dead on arrival” by critics in Congress. That’s particularly so this year, with Democrats in control of the House.

“President Trump has somehow managed to produce a budget request even more untethered from reality than his past two,” House Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., said after today’s release. If history is any guide, Congress could well save research programs — and the Space Launch System, or SLS — from the most draconian cuts.

Here’s a quick sector-by-sector rundown on science and technology spending in the White House proposal released today:

NASA: The space agency’s overall budget would come in at $21 billion, 2.2 percent below the current fiscal year’s level. There’d be a 5 percent cut for planetary science and a 7.8 percent cut for Earth science. WFIRST is slated for elimination, as it was last year. The James Webb Space Telescope would get 15 percent more money to cover anticipated cost growth. Space technology would receive a 9.4 percent boost, with funding for a Lunar Service Innovation Initiative that would support technology development for moon missions.

Perhaps the biggest switch has to do with the SLS: Its funding would be reduced 17.4 percent. NASA would slow down development of the beefed-up SLS Block 1B — and use commercial rockets to send payloads to lunar orbit in the 2020s and to Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, in 2023. For details, check out analyses by the Planetary Society and Ars Technica.

Space Force: The Trump administration wants to create a sixth military branch focused on space defenses, under the aegis of the Air Force, and today’s budget proposal says spending on the Space Force “will scale up responsibly and deliberately over the next several years in order to address increasing threats and maintain strategic stability.”

The White House is asking for $72 million in the upcoming fiscal year to create the Space Force headquarters. Funding for space-centered defense programs will be shifted over to the Space Force portfolio. Eventually, the Space Force could account for about $500 million in spending annually. For details, check out Space News. 

Technology development: Citing a statement from the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Science says the budget request would allocate $850 million for artificial intelligence development and $430 million for quantum information science across several agencies — including the Energy Department and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. The request seeks $150 million for the Technology Modernization Fund, aimed at supporting upgrades in information technology at federal agencies.

Defense applications in computer science are supported as well, to the tune of $208 million for the Pentagon’s Joint AI Center and $9.6 billion for cyber operations.

Medical research: The budget request slashes funding for the National Institutes of Health by 13 percent, to $34.4 billion for fiscal year 2020. A new initiative to study and treat pediatric cancers would receive $50 million as the first installment of a $500 million, decade-long commitment. NIH’s Centers for AIDS Research would receive $6 million to follow through on a White House plan to reduce HIV infections by 90 percent over the coming decade.

The overall reduction is drawing fire from science advocacy groups. “We’ll work with Congress in a bipartisan way and reject these cuts to American science,” Benjamin Corb, public affairs director for the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, said in an email. For details, check out Science’s analysis.

Chinook salmon
A male chinook salmon hugs the bottom of a waterway. (NOAA / NWFSC Photo / John R. McMillan)

Environmental research: The Environmental Protection Agency’s overall budget would shrink by 31 percent, to $6.1 billion. Funding for EPA’s science and technology programs would be reduced by 40 percent, to about $440 million.

At the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the White House seeks to eliminate several programs including Sea Grant, Coastal Zone Management Grants and the Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery Fund. (The salmon program was established by Congress in 2000 to reverse the declines of Pacific salmon and steelhead, focusing on California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Alaska.)

At the Energy Department, the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, also known as ARPA-E, would be zeroed out. The tax credit for electric vehicles would also be repealed. Congress seems likely to save at least some of these programs from the chopping block, as it has in past years. For details, check out The Hill.

Basic research: The National Science Foundation’s budget would be trimmed 12 percent, from $8.1 billion to $7.1 billion. There’s little detail about exactly what would be axed, however.

Generally speaking, the budget proposal is not going over well with the scientific community. “If enacted, the Trump administration’s proposed cuts to the fiscal year 2020 non-defense discretionary budget would derail our nation’s science enterprise,” Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in a statement.

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