Even as budget wars have raged on Capitol Hill, there’s been a fairly broad consensus that funding research and development is vital to American competitiveness.
The Beltway seems to churn out an inexhaustible supply of bipartisan reports proclaiming that bigger government investments in science and technology today will pay economic dividends for taxpayers down the road.
This week has been “tech week” at the White House, and President Trump has jumped onto the rhetorical bandwagon, hailing the glories of innovation.
But Trump’s 2018 budget goes the opposite direction: It proposes the deepest cuts in innovation investments that any administration has ever proposed.
Not only does the Trump budget slash climate science and clean energy research beloved by Trump’s critics, it whacks advanced manufacturing programs and fossil energy research catering to Trump’s supporters, as well as basic science and medical research beloved by almost everyone. It’s a powerful rejection of the innovation-industrial complex, and even though Congress is likely to ignore most of it, a similarly powerful reflection of Trump’s political war on Washington elites.
Overall, Trump’s budget cuts research and development spending by about 5 percent from current levels, but that figure includes hefty increases for late-stage weapons development at the Pentagon.
It would roll back non-defense R&D by an unprecedented 19 percent, taking the axe to the popular as well as the obscure.
The National Institutes of Health would absorb a 21.5 percent hit, including major cuts in research on aging, cancer, infectious disease, mental health, and drug abuse; NIH grant programs would have their stingiest award rates since 1970.
There would be even harsher cuts for the Agricultural Research Service, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, NASA’s education funding, NOAA’s ocean research, and EPA’s science office.
The Trump blueprint would also eliminate the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which oversees studies of which medical treatments actually work; the U.S. Geological Survey’s monitoring programs for volcanoes, earthquakes and the climate; and a popular Manufacturing Extension Partnership that provided technical assistance for more than 25,000 companies last year. And it would wipe out ARPA-E, the most futuristic agency in Washington, a cutting-edge incubator for energy research modeled on the high-tech Pentagon unit that pioneered GPS and the Internet.
Trump aides believe some federal investments in R&D have been duplicative or ineffective, while others ought to be handled by the private sector. And they’re still proposing $150 billion in R&D funding, which is considerably more than zero.
But their main argument for spending less on innovation is simply that America can’t afford to spend more. Trump’s Office of Management and Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, is an ardent limited-government conservative, and the budget he crafted for Trump reflects his belief that Washington spends way too much of your money.
Trump made it clear his top budget priorities are strengthening the military and securing the border, while somehow reducing deficits without raising taxes or cutting Medicare or Social Security for the elderly. Mulvaney had to shrink something—really, just about everything else—to try to check all those boxes.
“We wanted more for defense and the border, so we had to offset those increases somewhere,” one senior budget official explained. “We’re still making a big commitment to R&D. It’s just less than other administrations might make.”
In fact, even within Trump’s top government priorities, like the military and the border, innovation is getting a haircut.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science calculated that Trump’s budget would squeeze the Pentagon’s science and technology spending by 5 percent, including an 18 percent cut for its “manufacturing innovation institutes.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s science and technology budget would shrink by 20 percent, limiting research into cybersecurity, bioweapons defense, and border technologies.
There’s a political logic to Trump’s innovation policy heresies. Two thirds of R&D spending goes to blue states, and most of it tends to cluster in large cities and college towns rather than farm country or the Rust Belt, one reason these issues have more resonance for cosmopolitan technocrats than for Trump voters.
President Obama talked about them incessantly, clamoring for aggressive investments in innovation to help America “win the future,” but Trump has attacked just about everything Obama was for, from health care reform to the Paris climate agreement. On the campaign trail, he never emphasized winning the future, just winning, and he never proposed any new innovation policies of note.
Trump did create a White House Office of American Innovation led by his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and at his meeting with tech leaders he vowed that the office would help upgrade the federal government’s balky technology.
But he did not suggest that it would help promote innovation in the private sector; he suggested that was the private sector’s job. In fact, one of the office’s main tasks will be shrinking and reorganizing the government, reflecting the belief of Mulvaney and other movement conservatives in the administration that the best thing government can do to spur innovation is to get out of the way of innovative businesses. In fact, during last year’s crisis over the Zika virus, as public health experts were racing to study its link to birth defects, Mulvaney asked a provocative question on Facebook: “Do we really need government-funded research at all?”
Historically, though, the U.S. government has played a vital role in seeding and developing technological advances ranging from supercomputing to hydraulic fracking, advanced prosthetics to lactose-free milk, LED lighting to MRI testing.
The Trump budget represents an abrupt departure from this tradition, at a time when federal expenditures on R&D have already drooped to their lowest level as a share of the economy since the Russians launched Sputnik.
This has innovation experts scratching their heads, since Trump’s entire budget depends on yet another departure from budget tradition, a blithe assumption of 3 percent annual growth. Mark Muro, policy director at the Brookings Institution’s metropolitan studies program, says that with America’s workforce shrinking, the clearest pathways to that kind of robust growth would be more immigration and more innovation—and Trump has made it clear he doesn’t want more immigration. But he doesn’t seem to think Uncle Sam can help make innovation happen, either.
“There’s no conception in this budget of any positive role for government,” Muro says. “It’s totally out of step with everything we know about the innovation economy. I guess you could say that’s an innovation.”
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