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Don Paul: For now, budget has more whiffs than hits on science

Many of the much-feared cuts in science proposed by the new administration have vanished in the omnibus budget bill passed by Congress. There was bipartisan support in Congress to avoid most of the drastic cuts in scientific research that were on the table.

We don’t have the space to go through all the restorations, but the publication Science has done a good job cataloging them. Here are a few examples:

• The National Institutes of Health, one of the world’s most important medical research resources, has received a $2 billion increase for fiscal year 2017. NIH includes a number of institutions, including the National Cancer Institute and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Just one example: Alzheimer’s research will go up by $400 million.

• The National Science Foundation’s funding will remain basically stable for now, instead of facing large cuts. The foundation, among its many missions, is a primary driving force behind university and college science research. Read more about the NSF's primary missions.

• Congress clearly defied the president's proposed slashes for NASA’s ongoing research in climate and earth sciences, and the elimination of a key ecosystem satellite program next year. NASA’s overall budget will increase by 1.9 percent and its vital Office of Science funding goes up 3.1 percent.

NASA is one of the world’s great repositories of climate research and data. A slash in that role would make efforts toward designing ways to mitigate the impacts of a warming climate, as well as to predict the extent of those impacts, a scientific crisis.

By the way, I strongly recommend to those who wish to learn more about climate change NASA’s terrific outreach site for laypeople. It is fully updated at the beginning of each month, with input from some of the world’s leading climate scientists, and yes, it is balanced. NASA is quite straightforward about uncertainties and about what we DON’T know.

• The news is a little mixed for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the National Weather Service. The total agency budget is down 1 percent. However, NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research is up 3.5 percent. This office is our other center for primary research effort in climate research and has a relatively modest budget of $478 million.

NOAA’s overall budget is modest compared to NASA, and its climate research is not redundant with NASA’s. There is good cross-pollination between the two agencies, as well as good communication. NOAA also is devoted to oceanic research. Since the oceans cover 75 percent of the Earth and absorb much heat and the extra carbon we’re putting in the atmosphere, it is critical the oceanic research mission continue at strength.

One important hit in the NOAA budget comes to portions of its satellite program, which took a 6 percent cut. There is some small hope some private sector satellites already in orbit may be able to provide some of the data that would have been secured by the endangered satellite program, but that remains to be seen.

The National Weather Service, in the meantime, will receive some boosts from a bipartisan bill already signed by President Trump to enhance their ability to produce better and more timely warnings of severe weather and tropical weather hazards. Some of the bill’s original sponsors, incidentally, were Republicans. While the bill was not a Trump proposal, it received such broad support in Congress that he chose to sign it into law in April.

• Food and Drug Administration funding remains relatively flat, and Congress boosted U.S. Department of Agriculture research by 7.5 percent.

• Congress also restored much of the funding that would have been slashed by the Trump proposal for the EPA. However, the EPA’s science and technology programs took a 3.8 percent cut. There remains a great deal of controversy in some quarters about the EPA’s work in climate research. Congress did not go along with Trump proposals to slash that research, and it kept funding for Great Lakes, climate and air quality research relatively flat. Despite that, President Trump and his EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have ordered the EPA to remove its climate research and findings from the agency's website.

So, while Congress has maintained this research we taxpayers have paid for, it’s no longer readily available to us. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide whether that removal serves a useful purpose.

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