The President’s newly proposed budget has been roundly criticized, not only for its unrealistic assumptions about growth, but for the draconian cuts it will make to social welfare programs for the elderly and the poor. But in a potentially misguided effort to balance the budget on the back of non-defense spending to supposedly revitalize the economy, the administration is risking throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Study after study has shown that investment in fundamental research a generation ago is responsible for perhaps 50 percent of the GNP of the United States today. Although scientists and engineers only account for four percent of the nation’s workforce, they help create jobs for the other 96 percent, according to a leading report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Even research in esoteric areas like particle physics, has resulted in developments like the World-Wide-Web that currently drives much of the world’s economy. Yet, the Trump Administration plans to dramatically cut this engine driving the economy at the same time as it forecasts larger economic growth (3 percent) than either the Congressional budget office or most economists estimate even in their most optimistic scenarios.
This administration’s budget proposes substantial reductions in all Federally supported non-defense R&D funding in 2018, and continue those cuts in future years. An analysis from the American Association for the Advancement of Science suggests that the White House would cut total research funding by almost 17 percent, or $12.6 billion in FY2018. No administration in the last 40 years has proposed cuts to research this large. Ultimately at the end of a decade federal R&D would drop to 0.31 percent of the US GDP, representing a 40-year low in that metric.
President Trump has continually voiced strong concerns about American competitiveness, focusing on issues of tariffs, low cost labor abroad and its impact and the impact of immigration on job losses in the US. Yet in the high technology sector, which currently provides much of the underpinning for existing economic growth, other countries appear to recognize the enormous value of R&D in laying a foundation for growth and competitiveness in the 21st century. For example, from 2000-2013, China’s investments in R&D grew 17 percent, South Korea’s 8.3 percent, and Russia’s 8.2 percent, while the U.S. stagnated.
These research investments are paying off. China is moving to the forefront of manufacturing in several key high technology areas including solar power, and both China and South Korea, which have established scores of new fundamental research centers, are, for the first time since I have been in a physicist, attracting US researchers to leave established research institutions in this country to help lead these new programs abroad. Just last week the New York Times reported on a major new Chinese billion dollar initiative on Artificial Intelligence that is attracting researchers from abroad to relocate there.
While cuts in R&D are proposed across the board, the size of the cuts is not uniform. Predictably, some of the largest science cuts in the new budget involve research into renewable energy and efficiency, carbon capture and climate related research. Following a policy that any research involving new energy sources is unwarranted, cuts are also happening to programs that promote innovation and economic competitiveness including Energy Innovation hubs and the Advanced Projects Research Agency-Energy.
But the budget cuts far more than energy research. The NIH is slated for a 21 percent decrease and even at the Department of Defense, which is the beneficiary of the few increases in the proposed budget, funding for basic research would be cut by 2 percent.
This administration's proposal to slash government spending on pure and applied research does not reflect in any way longstanding partisan divides. Both Republican and Democratic Congresses and Republican and Democratic Administrations have a long history of supporting federal funding for research and development—funding that provides incredible economic and societal value. For generations, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have witnessed and celebrated the profound and positive impacts that these investments have on our health, economy, and global leadership. Across every industry and sector, investment in R&D provides clear opportunities for Americans and advances economic prosperity.
When considering the 2018 budget, Congress must continue to uphold and protect its bipartisan support for investment in basic and applied scientific research for the U.S. to maintain leadership in innovation. Making America Great means promoting its greatest strengths, and scientific research has been a hallmark of US leadership since the end of the Second World War, and in so doing, helped create the standard of living we enjoy in this country today. We won’t pass this on to the next generation if we cripple the R&D infrastructure so necessary to keep the engine of our economy running.
Lawrence M. Krauss is Foundation Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration and Dept. of Physics at Arizona State University and Director of its Origins Project. He also serves on the Board of Experts of the Federation of American Scientists. His most recent book is The Greatest Story Ever Told..So Far (Atria Books 2017)