President Donald Trump’s plan to slash federal research funding in his first budget proposal is generating grave concern among Michigan’s higher education leaders who say the cuts could impede economic growth, slow health discoveries and forfeit the U.S.’s research prowess to other nations.
Chief among the concerns is a proposed $5.8 billion cut, or 18 percent, to the National Institutes of Health, which funds medical research. Many also say the proposed cuts in financial aid programs would devastate students from low-income families who depend on government funds to attend colleges.
Wayne State University President M. Roy Wilson called the proposed NIH cut “massive” and said it potentially has the largest impact on higher education.
“It would have a huge downstream effect because of the way research is funded,” said Wilson, who serves on the NIH’s Advisory Committee To The Director.
“Universities already subsidize research to a certain extent. It is not a moneymaker. You have to subsidize the budget to do research. And so with the cuts that we are talking about, it would have a huge effect on universities, the trainees, the infrastructure. ... Ultimately, what will happen is discoveries won’t be made, people will not be going into biomedical research and our country will lose our preeminence in that area.”
Trump last month unveiled the proposed budget for 2018 that emphasizes national security — defense spending would rise $54 billion — while targeting programs elsewhere for cutbacks.
“In these dangerous times, this public safety and national security Budget Blueprint is a message to the world — a message of American strength, security, and resolve,” Trump wrote in a letter to Congress that was part of the proposed budget. “This Budget Blueprint follows through on my promise to focus on keeping Americans safe, keeping terrorists out of our country, and putting violent offenders behind bars.”
But many are blasting the proposal as short-sighted, particularly its cuts to biomedical research.
In a speech to the American Association for Cancer Research, former Vice President Joe Biden called the proposed reductions “draconian” and said they could close research labs nationwide.
“This would set the NIH budget, and biomedical research, back 15 years — and that’s not hyperbole,” Biden said.
Besides the proposed NIH cut, the president’s proposal does not offer details on funding for the National Science Foundation, which has a $7.5 billion budget that supports 25 percent of basic research in higher education, an analysis by Moody’s Investor Services shows.
Trump’s budget also calls for cuts in some smaller financial aid programs.
The budget proposes to reduce federal work-study funding “significantly” and eliminate the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant program, “a less well-targeted way to deliver need-based aid than the Pell Grant program,” according to the budget proposal.
The budget also proposes to reduce funding for programs known as TRIO, which serve low-income, first-generation students and students with disabilities, “that have limited evidence on the overall effectiveness in improving student outcomes,” the proposal said.
Meanwhile, the proposed elimination of agencies such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting ($445 million), the National Endowment for the Arts ($148 million), and the National Endowment for the Humanities ($146 million) also could impact higher education.
At Michigan State University, officials fear the possible loss of those agencies, which support campus programs, along with the proposed cuts to the NIH.
“Should the cuts come to fruition, the devastation to the research enterprise, college access for deserving students, and thus the United States’ international competitiveness would be unmatched in modern times,” said Mark Burnham, MSU’s vice president for governmental affairs.
While the budget will not include specific details until later, Burnham said the cuts will significantly impact students, especially those in graduate programs, since they are funded mostly through the federal research budgets.
“Graduate students are working with faculty members who are giving direction on how to move forward; they are doing a lot of work of discovery,” Burnham said.
“If you aren’t getting funded, or if funding is curtailed, what is really being undercut is the size of the output of the research; you are also undercutting the labor pool for research for graduate students who fill academic positions but also serve industry and government positions,” he said. “It becomes really self-defeating from a student and talent pool perspective if you are cutting graduate and research programs.”
Of special concern in East Lansing is the nearly $900 million cut proposed for the Department of Energy, which funds construction of the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams, the national facility for nuclear science.
The $730 million project, which has been under construction since 2014, is on budget and ahead of schedule for construction completion by 2021.
The project’s upcoming construction budget is $97.5 million, slightly less than previous years. If the funding is fulfilled, things should be fine, Burnham said.
“If they go below the plan, how big an impact depends on how big a cut it is,” Burnham said. “We’ve been working with Congress members who support the project so we are hopeful it will remain on schedule.”
Moody’s suggested that larger institutions, including the University of Michigan, which get significant aid from the NIH, may be able to adjust to federal budget cuts over several years because of their diverse funding portfolios.
UM President Mark Schlissel said otherwise at a recent Board of Regents meeting.
“We are deeply concerned about the administration’s proposed broad and disruptive cuts to areas that support federally funded research, the arts and the humanities,” Schlissel said. “The cuts would have severe consequences and dramatically affect our work as a public research university to serve society and our students.
“America’s support of research has long made us the envy of the world.”
Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities, warned of negative impacts nationwide from the cuts in health and energy research, plus reductions to scientific agencies such as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“This budget proposal would cripple American innovation and economic growth,” said Coleman, a former UM president, in a statement.