President Trump’s proposed budget will stunt American scientific innovation

Recently, President Trump released his proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year. It contains devastating cuts to funding for basic scientific research and to programs that would increase diversity among the next generation of scientists. Such cuts will harm our country, risking our status as world leaders in scientific research and innovation.

My lab at the University of Michigan studies disease outbreaks in Daphnia, tiny shrimp-like creatures that live in lakes, because they are key players in food webs, eating algae and serving as an important food for fish. Surprisingly, as we studied Daphnia and their parasites, we discovered chemicals that prevented them from getting fungal infections. Fungal infections in humans kill three times as many people as die from breast cancer each year; options for treating these infections are limited and becoming even more so due to drug resistance. We are now testing to see if the chemicals that prevent fungal infections in Daphnia also work against fungi that cause devastating infections in humans.

A healthy Daphnia individual. The black spot near the top is her eye, the green and gold spots on the right are developing embryos in her brood chamber, and the long green to gold vertical line is her gut filled with algae. Image credit: Meghan Duffy

I would not have predicted that research in my lab might lead to an important new medicine for people, but this is how basic research works: working on a topic that seemingly has no direct relevance to humans can lead to breakthroughs that have enormous, unanticipated impacts.

President Trump’s proposed budget includes an 11 percent cut to the budget of the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funds basic scientific research. Funding rates at the NSF are already very low — the program I receive my funding from only had an 8 percent success rate in 2016 — and I know from serving on grant review panels that very promising work is not being funded. Today, NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences announced that they are getting rid of small grants that funded research by doctoral students, even though they recognized the importance of this program in training the next generation of scientists. If our government fails to support basic scientific research, we will miss out on breakthroughs that could improve the lives of millions of people.

If we don’t begin to invest more in basic research soon, we will cede our status as leaders in scientific innovation other countries that do invest in scientific innovation. Moreover, our nation’s economy will suffer: it is estimated that scientific research and development accounts for more than half of the US economic growth since World War II.

While it is easy to focus on the impacts of the funding cuts proposed to the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, Environmental Protection Agency, and other scientific agencies, President Trump’s proposed budget will harm our ability to be world leaders in scientific innovation in other ways too. The proposed budget singles out the McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program, which prepares students from disadvantaged backgrounds for doctoral programs and increases the diversity of the next generation of scientists. The proposed budget would also eliminate Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants and cut work-study programs, other important programs that allow students from underrepresented groups to attend college.

The work in my lab that found chemicals that prevent fungal infections highlights the importance of diversity in science. My student who led that research is in a federally supported program that aims to train a more diverse pool of scientists. She is addressing questions that no one thought to ask before, and getting incredibly impactful results.

Dr. Mark Schlissel, the physician-scientist president of the University of Michigan, has noted that talent is evenly distributed in society but, at present, opportunity is not. Science will progress further and faster if participation is broad, with people from all backgrounds able to contribute their ideas and talents to science. But that progress will stall if we do not support programs such as the McNair Program and federal work-study, and if we do not have robust funding for basic scientific research.

We must fight to not just preserve funding for scientific research and diversity programs, but to increase it. Our nation’s status as a global leader in scientific innovation depends on it.

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