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More Than Any Other Industry, Science Makes America Great

Trump’s attacks on innovation aren’t just short-sighted—they violate the core of our nation’s identity

There's a reason we put a scientist on our $100 bill.

There is perhaps no community that deserves more credit for “making America great” than our scientists, whose innovations have contributed trillions of dollars to the U.S. economy, launched the world’s most advanced military force, and saved millions of lives.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, module pilot of the first lunar landing, poses beside the U.S. flag on the moon.

In case you need it, here’s a refresher on the greatest hits: Benjamin Franklin deepened our understanding of electricity; Thomas Jefferson’s weapons technology helped us win the Revolutionary War; then there was Eli Whitney’s cotton gin; Robert Fulton’s steamboat; Thomas Edison’s light bulb, phonograph, and literally a thousand other patents; the Wright Brothers’ airplane; Henry Ford’s Model T; and—for better or worse—the massive team of scientists on the Manhattan Project team, responsible for the atom bomb and nuclear energy. Oh, yeah, and we landed on the moon. Skip ahead to the internet, which was developed largely by American scientists and engineers in collaboration with the Department of Defense.

But with the release of President Trump’s budget blueprint last week, which slashed funding to many critical research efforts, the era of American innovation may officially be nearing its end. Of all the considerable funding cuts in his “skinny budget,”—programs that rely on science seem to fare the worst, The National Institutes of Health (NIH) loses 18 percent of its budget; the Department of Energy (DOE) loses 6 percent (including the entire agency devoted to advanced energy research); and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) loses a galling 31 percent.

If approved as proposed, this budget would “set off a lost generation of American science,” as The Atlantic’s Adrienne LaFrance put it. But what exactly is at stake? Perhaps the fabric of American society itself—but if that’s too major to wrap your head around, here are a few specifics to keep your eye on.

Contagious disease

A worker for the Pan American Health Organization helps fight Ebola.

Wrapped up in the controversy surrounding the GOP health bill is a program that acts as a warning system for outbreaks of infectious diseases such as Zika, Ebola, bird flu, and a thousand other terrors. As Ed Yong of The Atlantic explains, the Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity (ELC) program is:

A little-known, unglamorous, and modest fund. But it’s also vital for America’s ability to respond to infectious diseases, and especially to unforeseen emergencies like Ebola, Zika, or whatever else is coming next. If the Republican plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act goes ahead, the ELC’s budget will be cut in half. That’s a loss of $40 million—just 0.7 percent of the cut that’s planned for the NIH. But it alone would leave the U.S. sluggish and myopic when it comes to infectious diseases.

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]Cutting funding from our budget is the same as cutting the engines off an airplane that’s too heavy for takeoff.[/quote]

All told, Trump’s budget would cut NIH funding by 18 percent, making it one of the hardest hit agencies outside of the EPA, while calling for a wholesale reorganization of the 27 institutes that comprise the NIH. “Cutting (research and development) funding from our budget is the same as cutting the engines off an airplane that’s too heavy for takeoff,” Jason Rao, director of international affairs at the American Society for Microbiology, told Nature.

Rao emphasized that “the greatest threats to the United States are those presented by infectious diseases, climate change, and energy production—none of which can be addressed effectively without scientific research.”

Climate research

At the EPA and other agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)—which is actually part of the Department of Commerce, in large part due to its critical work in weather forecasting—climate research would be shuttered. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, was blunt when talking about climate research in a press conference last week: “We’re not spending money on that anymore … We consider that to be a waste of your money to go out and do that.”

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We don’t know the extent of the cut, but if you’re being led to the gallows and no one is making eye contact with you, it’s not a good sign.[/quote]

Rear Admiral David Titley, who served as NOAA’s chief operating officer for two years under President Obama, told the journal Nature that details about NOAA’s funding were hard to find in the Trump budget, but that “climate research and climate observing systems are being cut by at least 20 percent” across all agencies and departments. “Although we don’t know the exact extent of the cut, if you are being led to the gallows and no one is making eye contact with you, it is not a good sign,” Titley said.

A science-free EPA

Manhattan in 1966, four years before the EPA's Clean Air Act was passed.

After the word “science” was stripped from the EPA’s mission, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the agency would take a huge hit if Trump’s budget passes. But few expected the clobbering to be so devastating. Trump would cut the agency’s budget to $5.7 billion, slashing nearly a third of the agency’s funds. While the hallmark of these cuts is the full elimination of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama’s flagship policy for cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions, the cuts to enforcement of environmental protections and science-based monitoring and research are every bit as startling.

For instance, Fred Krupp, President of the Environmental Defense Fund, describes the near halving of funds for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) as “gutting the scientific underpinning of much of EPA’s work, including the toxics program. That cut would do serious damage to EPA’s ability to implement the bipartisan reforms of the Toxic Substances Control Act, which Congress passed just last year.”

The cuts to the ORD have one senior EPA official fretting to Science magazine that the office could “implode”:

“This is serious stuff. We’re all concerned about what might happen, not just to our livelihoods, but to our ability to support the agency’s mission.”

The Trump budget fully eliminates 50 programs that the White House deems “lower priority and poorly performing.” This includes the wildly popular bipartisan Energy Star program that sets standards for the electric efficiency of household appliances. (It’s the reason why the average American refrigerator is 20 percent larger than it was 40 years ago, but uses one-quarter as much electricity.) Also trashed are public health screening programs that detect toxins in products and pollution sources.

Advances in energy

The Department of Energy’s refrigerator innovations in the ’80s and ’90s saved us more than $6 billion.

The Department of Energy would lose $1.7 billion from its current budget—a roughly 6 percent loss—and a big chunk will be drawn from energy research and science programs. Meanwhile, the DOE’s Office of Science would lose $900 million (or about 20 percent of its budget), meaning big cuts for research on energy physics and climate change. And the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), which offers “high-risk, high-reward” loans and grants for research on cutting edge renewable energy and storage solutions, would be shut down entirely.

At the very moment that America should be embracing science—to help combat the gravest threats our nation and world face—scientists and researchers are under attack. But they’re not going down quietly. On April 22, scientists and supporters of science will converge on Washington, D.C., to “March for Science,” urging the White House and policy makers to take partisan politics out of the scientific process and support research and evidence-based policies to truly make America as great as it can be.

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