This Saturday, thousands of scientists and science-supporters are expected to join the March for Science, a group calling for “science that upholds the common good” and evidence-based policy making. Following several frustrating weeks of public back-and-forth over science’s inherently political nature, organizers released a revised set of diversity principles on March 9 — which, I’m happy to report, are thoughtful, feminist and intersectional. Let’s all hope those nice words are followed through with actions, because we need a diverse and inclusive scientific community working together now more than ever.
As of today, the US government has no budget past April 28th. Congress is in a two week recess, and when it reconvenes in the final week of April, there will only be four legislative days left with both chambers in session to get a catchall spending bill introduced and enacted before the stopgap measure expires and an automatic shutdown kicks in. This is because the government is currently being funded by a continuing resolution passed in December 2016, as the actual FY17 budget was held hostage as Republicans tried to use it as a vehicle to repeal the ACA! On March 16, President Trump proposed a blueprint “skinny budget” focusing on cuts to a small slice of discretionary spending for FY18, with final details of the plan promised in May… but even if that passes, it wouldn’t go into effect until October, unless Congress magically agrees on something super quick and also resolves to make similar appropriations for the rest of this year. So, lots of uncertainty and mixed deadlines, zero satisfied parties right now. We don’t know what sort of budget is going to emerge from this chaotic process (probably not a good one?), but if Trump has his way, it will be very, very bad for science.
One thing to keep in mind: President Trump does not actually set the budget. He submits a request, but it’s up to members of Congress to fill in the actual details with appropriations bills, which may or may not follow the president’s agenda. Historically, we do typically see the president exerting influence over the budget, but the extent to which they’re able to do so depends on their approval ratings, party relations and other political factors. Trump’s budget almost certainly will not pass as-is, but it does set the agenda and indicate issues Republicans are likely to prioritize during negotiations, so it’s worth paying some attention to.
Anyway, as many expected/feared, baby’s first budget proposal is historically anti-science. Under Trump’s plan, the Department of Energy’s Office of Science would lose $900 million, nearly 20% of its $5 billion budget. Funding for the National Institutes of Health, the primary funder of biomedical research in the US, would be cut by a disastrous 18.3%. (Thankfully, this idea has not been well received by GOP members.) And the National Science Foundation, which supports fundamental research across almost all science and engineering fields, somehow wasn’t even listed in the 62-page document (?!). This could mean that Trump wants to eliminate the agency; it could also mean that it’s included in the “other agencies” proposed to receive a 10% cut, or that he just forgot about it. Only time will tell.
Numerous actions are already underway to appeal to Congress’ better nature to protect science funding. (March 21: a Congressional subcommittee hearing on “Future Opportunities and Challenges for Science,” with brilliant testimonies by Acting Chief Operating Officer of the National Science Foundation Dr. Joan Ferrini-Mundy, and Chair of the National Science Board Maria T. Zuber. March 23: a strategic op-ed about the importance of science funding in Foreign Affairs magazine. April 6: 285 universities, science societies, research organizations and industry groups to send a letter to the House and Senate leadership.) This is all very good and encouraging! We have a lot of fire fighting to do in the short term, and I’m hopeful our country’s greatest minds will be able to make some headway as we enter (or continue to wander around in?) this dark period known as “appropriations.”
Longer term, one thing I would love to see coming out of the March for Science is a strategic look at how we can protect funding for scientific research beyond the next budget cycle. Not everyone is aware of the history, but this bear of a funding system we labor under is a relatively new arrangement. Prior to World War II, government money for research was rare, with funding instead coming from universities, philanthropists and local industry. This began to change in 1939, when a group of scientists approached President Roosevelt with a proposal for a pre-war “technological preparedness” program. After getting the okay from FDR, they formed the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), or what is now known as the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). The operation was headed by MIT engineer Vannevar Bush (no relation to the Georges). By the conclusion of WWII, OSRD’s 19 divisions, five committees and two panels had successfully developed advanced electronics, radar, Napalm, cures for malaria, the atomic bomb, and more. It permanently changed government’s relationship with science in this country, and participants on both sides worked to prolong the profitable arrangement.
Most notably, FDR wrote Bush a letter in late 1944, asking: “What can the government do now and in the future to aid research activities by public and private organizations?” Bush replied in an essay titled Science, The Endless Frontier:
“The simplest and most effective way in which the Government can strengthen industrial research is to support basic research and to develop scientific talent.”
Specifically, Bush proposed that the government create a permanent science advisory board to award competitive public grants for civilian research projects. Of the five guiding principles Bush suggested, Congress adopted four with the 1950 creation of the National Science Foundation (NSF). The remaining principle — “stability of funds over a period of years so that long-range programs may be undertaken” with funding commitments from current appropriations for programs five years in duration or longer — was not built in to the plan. Rather, it was left to the whims of each year’s budget cycle to determine how much money would be set aside to support scientific research. Usually, this works out okay; other times, we have a faltering pattern of hops and dips, or (most recently) scientists bracing for a lost generation in American research.
According to the March For Science “principles and goals” page, one of their objectives is funding for scientific research and its applications; another, to humanize science. I hope they are wildly successful on both fronts! Because, as a reminder: President Trump doesn’t set the budget. Congress does, and all 435 seats in the House and 34 out of 100 seats in the Senate will be up for midterm elections next year. Let’s hope they’re paying attention this Saturday.
Notes From A Queer Engineer is a recurring column with an expected periodicity of 14 days. The subject matter may not be explicitly queer, but the industrial engineer writing it sure is. This is a peek at the notes she’s been doodling in the margins.