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EDITORIAL

The president’s warped view of the future

Trump’s proposed cuts to basic scientific research would bungle not boost US competitiveness.

An aide holds a copy of President Trump's budget for fiscal 2021, as Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought testifies during a hearing of the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
An aide holds a copy of President Trump's budget for fiscal 2021, as Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought testifies during a hearing of the House Budget Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.Alex Brandon/Associated Press

President Trump is proposing a $4.8 trillion spending plan for the next fiscal year, called “A Budget for America’s Future.” Unfortunately, it would mortgage that future by slashing funding for scientific and technological research.

The White House’s budget is a wish list, a statement of priorities. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress will push back on many of President Trump’s alarming proposals, including huge cuts in Medicaid, education, environmental protection, and foreign aid. But lawmakers ought to handle these budget negotiations as more than the latest round of annual haggling over the operations of individual government agencies. They ought to respond to the provocation in the budget’s title. The budget debate will test whether they want to support Trump’s cramped vision of the future or champion much more expansive possibilities for the nation’s leadership and competitiveness.

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Trump boasted about the country’s scientific and medical achievements in last week’s State of the Union, and his proposed budget acknowledges how that prowess came about. The budget plan says that “over the past 70 years, America has emerged as the unquestioned global leader in science and technology” because of “nearly uninterrupted growth” in investments in research and development.

This R&D spending comes from multiple sources — governments, private companies, universities, and other nonprofit institutions — but the federal government is by far the largest and most important supporter of the experimental and theoretical work known as basic research. The feds supply 42 percent of funding for basic research in the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service. Crucially, this research often requires longer time horizons than businesses and venture capitalists have. Almost every high-tech product you use, whether it’s Google, your smartphone, or an MRI machine, depends on materials or processes honed with at least some taxpayer support. Transformative technologies like GPS navigation and the Internet would not even exist without government funding of research.

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How strange, then, that Trump’s budget calls for a sizable reduction in overall federal R&D spending, down to $142 billion from this year’s $156 billion.

The National Institutes of Health, which funds medical research, would get a 7 percent cut. The National Science Foundation’s R&D budget would drop by 6 percent; NASA’s would fall 5 percent. R&D funding at the Department of Energy would plunge by 16 percent, including a 67 percent cut for research in energy efficiency and renewable energy. (Somehow, though, there’s still money for “research into advanced coal processing.”)

These cuts — or as Trump’s budget calls them, “thoughtful reallocations” — would be counterproductive for any nation trying to ensure it’ll have a broad base of scientific knowledge on which to build new industries, create jobs, cure disease, and solve big problems like climate change. But something else is warped in Trump’s plan. While it would shrink the net the nation is able to cast for technologies of the future, it would double nondefense funding for two particular technologies, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, which are already attractive to the private sector.

The appeal of these technologies is understandable, because both could be crucial for US competitiveness in a wide range of applications. We’re already seeing how AI can make industries and scientists more productive. Quantum computers, which harness the strange power of quantum physics, could dramatically accelerate that progress by carrying out calculations that conventional computers can’t handle. Because they may enable precise simulations of molecular processes, they should make it possible to design new medicines and sustainable materials.

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AI and quantum computing are tools that will enhance the pursuit of scientific knowledge. But to put these technologies to great new uses, scientists still need the funding and support to deepen their understanding of fundamental processes like the operations of human cells. That kind of open-ended, foundational exploration is less likely to occur if the government kneecaps departments like the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the Department of Energy.

Trump’s previous budget proposals also called for cuts in scientific programs, and each time Congress overruled him. Even so, total R&D spending in the United States — including both public and private-sector investments — is less than that of several other countries when measured as a share of the overall economy.

This is a time for increased investment rather than retrenchment from our historic leadership in innovation. A budget that’s really for America’s future would not only acknowledge that scientific research paves the way for a country to compete in the global economy, but would close the gap between the United States and other nations. And it would double down on repeating the success of the past.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.