Op-Ed

Trump's anti-science budget will be a disaster for America's bottom line

In its approach to scientific research, President Trump’s budget can be accurately described as a mugging. I’ve watched this happen before, up close and personal. It does not end well.

In 1979, President Carter set an ambitious but achievable goal to get 20% of the nation’s energy from renewable sources by the year 2000. I then headed the federal Solar Energy Research Institute, which spearheaded the Manhattan Project to Harness the Sun. In the late 1970s, the United States had more PhDs in the solar field, filed more solar patents and made more commercial solar modules than the rest of the nations in the world combined.

In its first year, the Reagan administration slashed the solar institute’s staff by 40%, reduced its budget by 80% and abruptly terminated all of its 1,000-plus university research contracts (including shutting down work by two professors who later went on to win Nobel Prizes). The firings were so wantonly brutal that many of the researchers were driven into other fields. The consequences have been huge.

In 2016, solar energy was the United States’ largest source of new electricity-generating capacity, contributing roughly 40% of the total from all sources. The U.S. solar industry now employs 260,000 people, more than three times as many workers as the coal industry. Most of them install and maintain photovoltaic panels that convert free, nonpolluting sunlight into power. But nearly all the solar modules these workers install are being developed and manufactured abroad. The U.S. makes just 5% of the world’s solar panels.

America ought to own the solar-electric industry. By rights, we ought to be exporting solar technology, not importing it. Our second-tier status, in a field that we once absolutely dominated, is a direct consequence of budget decisions made by President Reagan’s Office of Management and Budget, and a go-along Congress.

Adjusted for inflation, the budget of the solar institute (since renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory) did not recover to its 1979 level until 2008. Science research can’t be revved up and down like an engine and succeed. If you pull the funding out from under a field of inquiry, it will stall and fall behind at best.

Now the Trump science budget proposes to make Reagan’s mistake all over again, across many more fields.

The administration’s funding plan entirely eliminates the Department of Energy’s most exciting, cutting- edge, high-risk, high-potential research program, ARPA-E, the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

Its double-digit cuts to the National Institutes of Health — America’s research bulwark against infectious diseases, cancer and other threats to public health — could mean the NIH will be unable to issue any new research grants in 2018.

The Trump budget cuts the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Research by 50%. (Earlier, the EPA’s new overseers eliminated “science” from the mission statement of its Office of Science and Technology Policy, as though science were now a dirty word.)

Federal climate studies will be eviscerated, and references to climate change have been scrubbed from some federal websites. (But, as Neil DeGrasse Tyson famously said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”)

The Sea Grant program — which supports more than 3,000 scientists, engineers, educators and students working to protect and sustain coastal ecosystems, communities and resources at 300 institutions — is entirely eliminated. So is the Chemical Safety Board.

Funding for restoration of the Great Lakes, Chesapeake Bay, Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay and other waterways is also essentially deleted.

Science has always been at the heart of America’s progress. Science cleaned up our air and water, conquered polio and invented jet airplanes. Science gave us the Internet, puts food on our tables and helps us avoid pandemics. Science and technology are widely considered by economists to be responsible for at least half of American economic growth since World War II.

Defunding science is the intellectual equivalent of eating our seed corn.

On Earth Day — April 22 — I expect millions of Americans to join the March for Science. They will include researchers, teachers, students and people who simply support good sense.

We will be marching because, if we let politics overtake the search for truth, much of what has made America great will disappear.

Denis Hayes, president and chief executive of the Bullitt Foundation, was the convener of the first Earth Day.

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