Update on the Budget Proposal: NSF

Back in March, I wrote about OMB Director Mick Mulvaney’s budget blueprint. I discussed, among other things, what the budget and his commentary appeared to imply about the OMB director’s views on how science advances and what its role is in our economy.

Because of the fallout of the events of the last few weeks, less attention will likely be paid to the white house’s new budget proposal: A New Foundation for American Greatness (note that this is only a proposal and will likely not get passed in its current form). Unlike the proposal released in March, this budget proposal mentions the National Science Foundations (NSF).

The proposed cut to the NSF is approximately $800 million or 10.7% of the current budget, and when asked about this, Mick Mulvaney joked about the fact NSF funds had gone to a musical about climate change “last year” , before mentioning that the this white house intends to cut back on climate change research. I should mention that it is true that the NSF awarded a grant to develop this play, although it is worth noting that its goals went beyond merely getting the word out about climate change and the fund ended in 2014.  More importantly, this $700k, 4-year expenditure is being used to cut over 1000 times that much from the annual NSF budget. Of course, the overall budget for any environmental/earth science research is a little over twice the proposed cuts, so it is likely impossible that all of the cuts will come from climate change research.

It is more likely that these cuts will be dispersed across the board, leading the NSF to prioritize existing projects over new ones, leading to a sharp decline in funds for new researchers many of whom would be forced out of science altogether. If this prediction is accurate, and these cuts are maintained for a few years, fewer students will be able to get advanced science degrees at universities across the country, leading to a significant reduction in the size of the scientific community. Undoing the effects of these cuts would likely cost many times what will be saved and take significantly longer. To be fair, Director Mulvaney only intends to harm climate science: harm to the other fields of study is merely a price he is evidently willing to pay.

This was all covered in my first post, when I discussed cuts to the Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health. NSF funding differs from funding from these and other agencies in one important respect: it comes with an outreach requirement. The outreach requirement not only ensures that recipients of NSF funding participate in events intended to increase public interest in and awareness of the sciences, but helps facilitate a dialogue between the scientific community and the rest of society.  As I mentioned in my first blog post, this dialogue becomes increasingly important as fields of study advance, becoming more specialized and insular.

The administration’s cavalier attitude towards science education represents the closest any administration has come in recent history to being openly anti-science. To be fair, these cuts are not localized to science: they part of a larger set of cuts meant to help fund increases in defense spending, nuclear security, and border security, as well as tax cuts. The problem with making these decisions about scientific funding in comparative ignorance is that the usefulness of basic research is difficult to gauge when you know a field well and extremely difficult to gauge when you don’t. This means that when it comes time to either increase or decrease spending on research, it would be best to consult with scientists and engineers in a wide variety of fields to discuss the ramifications of each change if a politician wants to approach this decision with prudence.

This brings me to the other possibility for funding cuts: that they are NOT spread out, and are localized to climate science, as the White House claims. While scientists outside of atmospheric sciences would now only have to contend with cuts made to other th agencies, the atmospheric science community would have to contend with a particularly brutal decimation since the NSF accounts for 59% of federal funding for environmental sciences. This contraction would arrive alongside severe cuts to other sources of climate science funding (discussed at greater length in the budget blueprint released in March), leading to a drought for climate science research in the United States. This drought would likely immediately end the careers of climate scientists across the country, and make it nearly impossible for new climate scientists to enter the field for years to come, since any newly-minted PhD’s would now have to compete for scraps with an over-crowded field of veteran researchers.  Some might rejoice at the diminished funding into studying anthropogenic climate change. I would like to remind these people that the damage would spread to all climate science research, partly because no one studies “pure” climate change and partly because the cuts don’t leave much money for any other type of climate science.