Just after President Trump was elected last November, thousands of American scientists did something unprecedented. Startled by the incoming president’s blatant disregard for the facts, they sent an open letter calling on the new administration and Congress to respect “scientific integrity and independence.” Signed by more than 5,500 scientists, the letter ends with a warning: “We will continue to champion efforts that strengthen the role of science in policymaking, and stand ready to hold accountable any who might seek to undermine it.”
If Trump’s scientifically indefensible statements on the campaign trail weren’t disturbing enough, his cabinet appointees, his executive actions rescinding environmental safeguards, and his preliminary “skinny” budget proposing to gut federal science programs have all set off alarm bells.
In response, the scientific community is preparing for another unprecedented action. On Saturday, April 22 — Earth Day — scientists and their supporters will gather in Washington, D.C., and more than 400 cities around the world for the first-ever March for Science, kicking off a week of activism capped off by the People’s Climate March on April 29.
Never before have scientists seemed this motivated and engaged, and with good reason. Trump’s actions and his proposed budget would not only threaten public health and the environment, they also would stifle American innovation and slow economic growth.
That’s right. Most Americans — including the businessman in the White House, apparently — do not fully appreciate how much our economy relies on federal science. The truth is, U.S. corporations, their employees, and the public at large are all heavily indebted to taxpayer-funded research for a wide array of consumer products, pharmaceuticals and technologies. Regardless, Trump’s proposed cuts would hamstring research at federal agencies that have a long history of doing the heavy lifting.
Nipping the Nifty 50
Let’s start with the fact that you’re reading this on a computer or another electronic device. In 1973, the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a research program called the Internetting project, which developed procedures that allowed computers to communicate across multiple, linked networks. In the mid-1980s, the National Science Foundation underwrote the development of DARPA’s system to provide the backbone of what we now call the Internet.
The National Science Foundation’s website includes the Internet in its “Nifty 50” government-funded inventions, innovations and discoveries that we all now take for granted. The list, which includes everything from barcodes and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to speech recognition and web browsers, amounts to just a small sampling of products and technologies government funding helped spawn.
Although Trump’s proposed budget does not specifically mention the National Science Foundation, which currently provides more than $7 billion annually in research grants, it likely will be included in the category of “other agencies” that Trump wants to cut by nearly 10 percent.
Defunding Life-Saving Drug Research
Trump’s proposal does explicitly call for slashing the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) annual budget by 18 percent, from its current $31.7 billion to $25.9 billion, which would bring its funding to the lowest level in at least 15 years (in constant dollars). According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, such a drastic cut “would irreparably harm the ability of the nation’s scientists to develop cures and treatments” and would “have a devastating effect on America’s health security.”
An analysis published earlier this month in the journal Science found that more than 30 percent of NIH-funded biomedical studies between 1980 and 2007 were later cited in a patent for a drug, device or medical technology. Nearly a tenth of all NIH grants over the same time period, meanwhile, led directly to a patent.
NIH’s commercialization track record has had a significant economic impact. According to a 2013 report by United for Medical Research — a coalition of leading research institutions, patient and health advocates, and private industry — NIH-funded research added $69 billion to U.S. gross domestic product in 2011 alone. If anything, “we’re underinvesting” in biomedical research, says economist Pierre Azoulay, co-author of the recent Science study. “The idea that we’re going to get to a better place by cutting [the NIH budget] is ridiculous.”
Running Out of Energy
The Trump blueprint proposes to cut the Department of Energy (DOE) budget by less than 6 percent, to $28 billion, but would spend more on the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration — which runs the nuclear weapons complex — and chop energy-related programs by nearly 18 percent. The Office of Science, which supports research at more than 300 universities and oversees 10 national laboratories, would suffer a 16 percent cut. Many of those labs, including Lawrence Berkeley and Pacific Northwest, conduct studies on bioenergy, electric vehicles, energy efficiency, hydropower and solar energy.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy and the Innovative Technology Loan Guarantee Program, both of which invest in cutting-edge energy technologies private investors won’t fund, would be eliminated altogether, as would the Advanced Technology Vehicle Manufacturing Program, which provides loans to automakers to produce a new generation of fuel-efficient vehicles.
Federal Science Trumps Corporate R&D
The Trump administration’s rationale for eliminating these DOE research programs? According to the president’s budget report, the “private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialize innovative technologies.”
In fact, government-funded R&D — not the private sector — is responsible for much of the innovation that drives economic growth. As economist Mariana Mazzucato, author of The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, explained in a September 2013 article, “businesses are typically timid — waiting to invest until they can clearly see new technological and market opportunities. And evidence shows that such opportunities come when large sums of public money are spent directly on high risk (and high cost)” research. The private sector’s “fear explains why we have seen venture capital entering, in industry after industry, only decades after the initial high risk has been absorbed by the government.”
Rush Holt, CEO at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, agrees that “corporate research, as beneficial as it may be, is no substitute for federal investment in research.”
“We need both,” he wrote in a September 2016 column. “But we should recognize that the private sector, with its natural focus on commercial results and return on investment, will not do much of the fundamental research that is necessary for the long-term progress of society.”
Holt, who served from 1999 to 2015 in Congress and holds a doctorate in physics, called on the federal government to “fund more vital research for public health, safety, security, economics and quality of life.” The Trump administration’s preliminary budget blueprint, however, indicates that it plans to do the exact opposite, one of the many reasons scientists will be marching this weekend.
Some experts point out that gutting federal scientific research would have dire international consequences as well.
“If they were enacted, these cuts signal the end of the American century as a global innovation leader,” Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “America’s lead in science and technology was built on the fact that in the 1960s, the U.S. government alone invested more in R&D than the rest of the world combined, business and government. The Trump budget throws this great legacy away.”
Elliott Negin is a senior writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Ashanti Washington provided research for this article.
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