Cutting science research won’t help President Trump achieve his goals
© Greg Nash

“America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” That was the label President Trump slapped on his fiscal year 2018 spending plan. At least, where science is concerned, the president’s request falls far short on both accounts.

It would guarantee that America wouldn’t be first, and far from making America great, it would turn the clock back to the time when American scientists had to travel abroad to carry out any serious research.

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By slashing support for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Department of Energy’s Office (DOE) of Science — both of which would see a fifth of their budgets vaporize — the president’s plan would send the United States packing in science and innovation competitiveness. It would sell Americans short on economic growth and national security.

 

And it would make the nation a far less desirable destination for the world’s best and brightest minds, whom President Trump has said he wants to attract with a merit-based immigration policy.

For a president who touts his ability to think big, his science request reflects incredibly small thinking. It’s possible he delegated the details of deep discretionary spending cuts to Mick Mulvaney, his Office of Management and Budget director, who simply followed the Heritage Foundation’s playbook.

Otherwise, it’s difficult to reconcile his spending plan with his twin goals of boosting economic growth, which largely depends on science and technology, and strengthening the military, which relies overwhelmingly on advanced technologies for its might and global reach.

It’s worth a quick but deeper dive into both of those objectives. First, the economy. During his campaign, President Trump repeatedly faulted Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaDemocratic governors fizzle in presidential race Obamas reportedly buying Martha's Vineyard mansion Trump has 62 percent disapproval rating in new AP poll MORE for being the ‘first president in modern history not to have a single year of three percent growth.” And he pledged to produce a better outcome.

Eliminating regulations and reducing corporate tax burdens might help him get partway there. But as economists of every stripe note, science and technology have accounted for more than 50 percent of economic grow since the end of World War II. And today, some economists assert that number could be more than 75 percent.

You don’t have to look far for a prime example. Federal support of basic physics in the post-war years laid the foundation for the laser. When it was invented in 1961 — following research efforts that had begun a decade earlier — the device had no obvious application. But today, from supermarket scanners and DVD players to guided missiles and telecommunications, its presence on the American landscape is unmistakable.

In fact, in 2010, when physicists Thomas Baer and Alfred Schlachter examined the impact of the laser on modern life, they found that fully a third of the American economy relied on the device and the technologies it enabled.

Now to the military. Personnel aside, science and technology are its heart and soul. Stealth aircraft, satellite reconnaissance, precision guided weaponry, GPS-enabled drones, and body armor are just a few examples. And not all of those technologies originated from research sponsored solely by the Defense Department.

The National Science Foundation, DOE and NASA have all been contributors. So, when President Trump proposes to balance a boost in defense spending by delivering a body blow to the non-defense side of the ledger, he is recklessly placing the nation’s security at future risk.

If economic growth and national security impacts are not enough to change the president’s mind on his budget blueprint, he should consider where America’s vaunted scientific prowess will be headed with the draconian reductions he has proposed. Once the envy of the world, U.S. research facilities have been on a steady slide downward for some time as a result of budgetary strictures.

The center of high-energy physics and fusion science have shifted to Europe. And within five years, no state-of-the art X-ray synchrotron light sources — which are crucial for materials science and biomedicine — will be located in the United States. Guillotining the DOE Office of Science, which has the prime responsibility for building and operating major U.S. research facilities will only spill more of America’s research lifeblood.

Finally, a comment about the proposed budgetary hit to NIH. President Trump has made reducing the costs of healthcare a signature feature of his first 100 days in office. Those costs are driven heavily by end-of-life care often associated with cancer and other lengthy, debilitating diseases for which there are no known cures.

Finding remedies for such diseases could have a profound impact on healthcare spending. Slashing NIH research by a fifth is a bad prescription for reaching that elusive goal.

Making America great requires making American science great. The bottom line: the president’s budget plan won’t deliver for him or for the voters who elected him.

Michael S. Lubell is the Mark W. Zemansky Professor of Physics at the City College of the City University of New York. He writes and speaks widely about scientific research and science policy. His book on science and technology policy is due out at the end of the year.


The views of contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.