For the past few months, there’s been an overarching challenge facing our nation’s government: the federal budget. Democrats and Republicans can’t seem to agree on simple legislation these days, so it’s no surprise that they couldn’t agree on how to allocate funds for the next fiscal year. In addition to catering to their parties’ and constituents’ demands, senators and representatives are also given suggestions by President Trump. Inevitably, numerous controversial pieces of the budget caused stalemates, and our government shut down.
Now, a government shutdown may not seem like a big deal; it’s not like it hasn’t happened before, and there’s no noticeable difference when our government is technically “out of service”. Some agencies which rely on federal funding, however, are hit hard by both the shutdown and the possible lack of funding that eventual budget cuts might bring.
One such agency is the NSF, the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s mission is to support the development of scientific knowledge in all fields but medicine, from astronomy to zoology. You may not have heard of this agency, but it has almost definitely impacted your life. NSF support has made possible the discovery that our universe is expanding and accelerating, and NSF scientists have proven the existence of black holes. In addition to these cosmic revelations, NSF support is also responsible for bar codes, the Internet, and web browsers. Science isn’t all deep space and subatomic particles, it is ingrained into the daily life of each and every individual, whether we recognize it or not.
As an agency which funds so many discoveries, this agency also invests in undergraduate students, holding summer research opportunities called REUs at universities around the globe. As my friends and I applied for these opportunities, there came a point when the NSF database listing these opportunities became unavailable, and many REUs closed their doors altogether, citing lack of funding. I wondered where this drastic change had come from, and I did a little research. The answer, ultimately, was not too surprising.
During budget discussions, President Trump submitted a plan of what his goals for the budget were, and one of these goals comprised cutting the NSF’s budget by 30%. It marked the first time in the NSF’s history that a president had ever suggested giving less funding to the agency than the year before. Trump, after significant backlash, eventually rescinded this request, but the budget was still decreased. This year’s budget is $6.653 billion, down 11.2% from last year. Now, I know that $6.653 billion sounds like a lot, almost like an unusable amount of money. But consider how much we spend on our military. The 2018 budget for defense spending is just under $700 billion, more than 105 times higher than that of the NSF.
So where did this 11 percent go? After Trump was elected, NSF officials knew that a funding cut was possible, and did everything they could to prepare themselves for this potential dilemma. Some departments planned out what they would do if faced with a 20 percent budget cut, for example, but they viewed this as an extreme hypothetical. No one expected a budget cut would be so drastic, and the agency was sent scrambling after the news was finalized. Individual departments had to target what their core research was, and decide what cuts could be made without jeopardizing what makes their disciplines important. The NSF supports many graduate students through fellowships, and one of the biggest cuts the agency had to make reduced the number of these fellowships by two. Many NSF employees are still hopeful about the work that can be accomplished, even with an 11% cut, but others hope that this lack of funding will show how important this agency is, and inspire a boost back to previous funding levels in future years.
I think that many people don’t realize the impact that the NSF has. Its grants are one of the biggest sources of support for research labs across the country, and it fuels the scientific developments that help our country to remain globally competitive. The world we are entering is becoming more scientific and more technological, not less. If we continue to decrease the funds that we allocate to scientific development through programs such as the NSF, we will begin to fall behind in the global race for new discoveries. Innovation is one of America’s best known principles, and it would be a shame to lose that trait thanks to a poorly allocated budget and a misunderstanding of the importance of some federal agencies.