Proposed Trump budget threatens academic research
Raina Maier discusses state funding on April 18. Maier's work focuses on environmental topics that may be jeopardized by the new budget.
Faculty members say the recent budget cuts proposed by the Trump administration to federal science organizations could seriously impact the UA’s ability to do important science research.
“Scientists can operate on a shoestring budget but they can’t compete as well on a shoestring budget,” said Leif Abrell, an associate research scientist in chemistry and soil, water and environmental science.
The Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts would fall heavily on some of the largest providers of scientific research grants, such as the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Institutes of Health.
According to the 2018 budget blueprint, the budget for the EPA would be 31 percent smaller than it is now, resulting in the loss of over 50 programs and 3,200 job positions. The Department of Energy’s budget would be decreased by 5.6 percent.
The National Institutes of Health doesn’t fair much better, taking a cut of $5.8 billion and facing the elimination or restructuring of programs such as the Fogarty International Center and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
If the proposed budget is ratified, it will create significant barriers for science researchers at the UA in the upcoming years.
Raina Maier is a professor of soil, water and environmental science who studies microbial communities in nutrient-poor environments, such as the Atacama Desert and Arizona mine tailing sites.
Her research is focused on developing ways to get plants to grow in these otherwise barren areas. Much of Maier’s research is funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
“I think it’s really important that we support the research agenda both at the federal level and at the state level, and we’ve had difficulty doing that in the last decade,” Maier said.
In addition to appointments in several other UA programs Maier is director of the UA National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Superfund Research Program and the University of Arizona Center for Environmentally Sustainable Mining.
Some of the difficulties have rose from a decrease in the amount of state money given to the university for research.
“Many of us don’t have as much time to do research as we used to because we’re spread so thin, because we haven’t been able to hire,” Maier said.
However, the university also receives a significant amount of money from other funds, including grant awards for research, Abrell said.
Abrell has been funded by both the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health in the past. He recently began working on a five-year research study funded by the National Science Foundation focusing on detecting chemical, metal and microbiological contaminants in the water in southern Arizona communities.
Flat funding at the federal level increases the competition for grants, making it difficult to earn the necessary money for research, Maier said.
This impacts the amount of research the university can produce. Research however isn’t the only thing that will be affected by the proposed budget cuts.
If the amount of grant awards decreases, it could mean fewer jobs and improvements to the infrastructure of the university, as well as higher tuition, Abrell said.
According to Abrell, a decrease in the amount of money available to the university would, by extension, negatively impact Tucson’s economy. The UA is one of the city’s largest employers.
The budget cuts would be felt on a national scale as well.
“Our quality of life is built on the results of scientific research over the last 50 years and longer,” Abrell said. “Especially since the Cold War, the United States began investing heavily in science to compete with the Russians but the benefits to modern society expanded from there, either intentionally or unintentionally.”
Losing national focus on the advancement of scientific research and innovation could result in a failure to address the ever-increasing number of critical issues, Abrell explained.
“I believe in the importance of science and innovation, in keeping the United States on the cutting edge in the world,” Maier said.
The research done by universities throughout the nation is providing answers to some of the world’s most pressing questions, such as how to feed a growing world population and combat climate change, Maier added.
“We’ll also fall behind other powerful nations if we want to stay competitive economically, [and] economics depends on science,” Abrell said.
Speaking of economics, budget cuts to government research agencies could result in a refocusing of grant money to fund projects centered on applied science research.
While applied science research is important, it tends to produce immediate results and a clear payoff, as opposed to basic science research, which provides long-term, larger-scale results according to Abrell.
“The industry does very practical research that they think will pay off,” Maier said. “In terms of university research, maybe not all of it pays off in the short term, maybe it takes a long time to get a good payoff.”
Maier’s own research involves a long-term research study on a specific mining superfund site in Arizona.
Abrell said superfund sites are geographic areas throughout the country with serious environmental damage, usually due to chemicals.
The Superfund program’s budget would be reduced by about 30 percent under Trump’s proposed budget.
“If that [program] was cut that would significantly impact quite a few scientists here,” Abrell said.
Several dozen scientists work with UA’s Superfund Research Program.
“With cuts at the state level and cuts at the federal level, it’s really hard to even keep up with what we have to do,” Maier said. “I think we’re moving backwards in some ways.”
Trump’s proposed budget cuts for 2018 are simply a blueprint and there is not currently a set date they will be put into action. Before the budget goes into effect, it will need to undergo a long process of ratification and majority approval from budget committees in the House of Representatives and Senate.
Follow Hannah Dahl on Twitter.