With Deep Budget Cuts Proposed to Science Research, What Should Funders Be Doing?

When the Trump administration first attempted to ban travel from a list of predominantly Muslim countries, much of the science community responded with outrage. An attack on immigration was seen as an attack on science, if indirectly.

With the unveiling of the president’s budget proposal last week, it’s clear that science itself has now become a primary target. Deep, broad cuts to government research spending—in particular, an 18 percent reduction to the historically sacrosanct NIH budget—signaled an unprecedented assault on research in the United States.

Granted, it’s still early, and a president’s budget is always just a blueprint, but most private science funders have not so far stood alongside other leaders in the scientific community to object to the proposed cuts. I’ve only seen one major research funder address the president’s budget—the Gates Foundation issued a statement that the organization is “deeply troubled” by the proposal. Bill Gates himself wrote an op-ed opposing cuts to foreign aid, and met with the president on Monday to discuss the budget proposal.

You could certainly make an argument that it’s not science philanthropists’ bailiwick to take on federal budget fights, and that they should remain apolitical funders of research itself. But just as with the Muslim travel ban, we’ve reached a point when foundations ought to put their influence to use, and take strong stances against the Trump administration’s damaging actions. If that wasn’t clear before, it’s unmistakeable in light of this budget proposal. 

Related: Few Science Funders Have Spoken Out Against Trump. Here's Why They Should Take a Stand

To understand why, you only have to look at the severity of the proposed cuts to research. 

At least $7 billion in research cuts are outlined, the most devastating being those NIH cuts of $5.8 billion—that slash funding for disease research with longstanding bipartisan support. The Energy Department faces $900 million in research cuts, including one entire program (ARPA-E). The EPA would see a 31 percent reduction, and many other agencies that fund research, including the NOAA, the USGS, and NASA would have smaller budgets. The proposal did not specify what cuts the NSF might expect. 

So that just means philanthropy will have to pick up the slack, right? People like Mark Zuckerberg and Paul Allen will have their time to shine and save science. Afraid not. 

As we often point out, private science philanthropy is significant, but a small piece of the country’s overall research funding. While apples-to-apples numbers are hard to pin down, the Science Philanthropy Alliance recently started conducting surveys of private funding for basic science research, identifying $2.3 billion in 2016. That’s certainly a lowball number, but even so, compare it to the roughly $38 billion per year the federal government gives to higher education institutions for research and development.


Another important thing to note is that federal funding isn’t tucked away in government labs somewhere. It’s woven throughout the science research landscape. Of the NIH’s budget, more than 80 percent goes to around 300,000 outside researchers. 

Science doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and even privately funded research is connected to and dependent on universities, labs, collaborators, and an ever-changing tapestry of past research funded by government dollars. Private research grants often only cover a chunk of an investigator’s lab budgets.  

In other words, science philanthropy and the research it funds make up just one part of a large ecosystem of research happening across the United States, most of which is government backed. And that ecosystem would be devastated by this budget. 

The backlash has been harsh among many scientists. Adrienne LaFrance at The Atlantic interviewed several researchers, including those backed by foundations, who all expressed deep concern, with one doctor fearing the budget would set off a “lost generation in American science.” Adam Rogers for Wired writes, “Trump’s Budget Would Break American Science, Today and Tomorrow.” Matt Hourihan, the director of budget and policy programs at the AAAS, tells Vox, “Make no mistake: These numbers would be crippling to much of the federal science apparatus.”

Many other professional associations and institutions have made comparable statements, but again, not much has come from foundations. That silence is strange, since foundation leaders I talk to enthusiastically support government funding for science and lament budget cuts. They often see philanthropy’s role as one of filling gaps, or trying out risky new endeavors not ready for government grants, rather than replacing public funding. Again, they know they’re not working in a vacuum. 

There are also funders backing work to increase understanding of and appreciation for science overall in the United States, like the Sloan Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Private science awards like the Breakthrough Prizes, Lasker Awards, and Vilcek Prizes publicly celebrate the achievements of researchers. 

That’s to say, philanthropists care very much about the overall state of science research in the United States. They also like to stay in the background, for the most part.

But whether they like it or not, foundations are part of the debate over federal research funding. Even if funders don’t agree themselves, headlines about outsized philanthropic endeavors may feed into a creeping misconception that private support can cover the tab.

Philanthropy should actively work to counter that idea and to protect the role of public research funding, especially now that it’s under such a brazen attack.

In an often-cited 2014 New York Times feature about science philanthropy, Robert Conn, president of the Kavli Foundation, acknowledged his concern that large private giving might diminish government support. 

“It’s always been a major worry,” Conn told the Times. “Philanthropy is no substitute for government funding. You can’t say that loud enough.”

With so much research on the chopping block, philanthropists needs to say it louder than ever.