Concerns Persist Over Federal Research Cuts

Earlier this month, President Donald Trump unveiled his proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2019, entitled “An American Budget: Major Savings and Reforms.” While private businesses and the proposed border wall would receive a larger share of funding from these savings, academics and scholars might not be so lucky.

Trump’s proposed plan entails a slew of cuts for federal agencies that fund research at Boston College. This trend isn’t an anomaly. As reported by The Heights last year, faculty feared that cuts to federal funding for key programs could have a significant impact at BC. Once again, these concerns rest in the humanities and in the earth and environmental sciences department.

“​Cuts to federal research funding have been a reality for many years now,” said Sharon Comvalius-Goddard, the director of BC’s Office of Sponsored Programs, in an email.“BC has responded to that reality by diversifying our funding sources.”

BC’s funding data illustrates this trend. Funding actions by federal sponsors at BC decreased from $35.8 million in fiscal year 2016 to $30.9 million in 2017, while funding actions by non-federal sponsors increased from $20.4 million in fiscal year 2016 to $23.4 million in 2017.

The fiscal year 2017 annual report for the Office of Sponsored Programs covers the period June 1, 2016 to May 31, 2017, and reflects the most recent numbers available.

“We now approach private sources of funding such as foundations and corporations to help fill the ​gap in federal funding caused by budget cuts,” Comvalius-Goddard said. “We’ve also seen that these private sources seem to be increasing the types of funding programs they have available.”

As reported by the Associated Press, Trump’s budget suggests significant reductions for the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, and would “begin” shutting down in 2019. While both are currently budgeted at around $150 million, the NEA would be cut down to $29 million, and the NEH to $42 million.

The agencies, longtime targets of conservatives, had their funding restored in 2017 in a wave of bipartisan support, despite an attempt by Trump to eliminate them.

Requesting grants from these agencies is commonplace at BC. In fiscal year 2017, proposed grants from the NEA totaled $150,000, and $120,000 in 2016. Grant proposals from the NEH totaled $60,612 in fiscal year 2016.

“Clearly it would not be good for Trump to eliminate either the NEA or NEH,” said Nancy Netzer, director of the McMullen Museum of Art. “The ripple effects throughout our society would be far reaching and have a negative impact on the cultural values of our country.”

Elizabeth Graver, of the English department, expressed concerns of a similar perspective over the NEA in an email to The Heights last semester.

“The NEA supports the arts at BC on so many different levels,” she said. “Individuals [sic] faculty, including myself, have been able to take time off from teaching and dive deep into our creative projects with support from NEA Fellowships. We bring numerous writers, artists and performers to campus whose work is supported by the NEA. The NEA also does important work supporting arts and artistic creation in rural and underserved communities and encouraging new voices—goals many people in our department are also working on in various ways.”

Faculty in the sciences have also expressed concern over potential budget cuts in their fields. Funding levels for two major research donors at BC, the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, would be roughly equivalent to their current levels under Trump’s proposed budget. But other donors of research funds, namely the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, the United States Geological Survey, and the Environmental Protection Agency, would see serious funding decreases.

Under Trump’s plan, the EPA’s funding would be dropped 24 percent, the USGS’s would lose 20.8 percent, and the NOAA’s would be cut by 19.6 percent. In fiscal year 2017, proposals to fund projects at BC under the USGS totaled $228,837, and $149,232 in 2016. It is important to note, however, that NSF proposals for funding came in at $38,633,554 in fiscal 2017, and funding actions at $3,733,917.

“These funding cuts may influence important long-term environmental monitoring, including water, ecological, weather and climate projects,” said Noah Snyder, an associate professor of the earth and environmental sciences department, in an email.

Ethan Baxter, the chairperson of the earth and environmental sciences department, explained in an email that many of the specific programs losing funding are within earth- and climate-observing science in the NOAA. He also observed that the cutback to the USGS would harm research that delves into the nation’s natural resources.

“Most of our funding currently comes from NSF, but all these other programs fund earth and environmental science research and thus if they are shrunk, it puts a squeeze on options and resources for everyone,” he said. “A few of us have had plans for some USGS funded work, and that may now dry up. We’ll have to see what actually passes congress.”

While BC continues to receive grants for research in the face of potential budget cuts, it is becoming increasingly more challenging to achieve them, according to Comvalius-Goddard. The peer review process has become more stringent, and due to the shrinking budget, federal agencies have become less willing to take chances on innovative, higher-risk projects. This leaves a negative impact on new investigators who aren’t known as well-established researchers, preventing them from representing high risk projects.

“The cuts could have an negative impact to not only BC, but to research in the United States as a whole,” she said.

Congress will not approve a final version of the fiscal year 2019 budget until June. In the meantime, BC can only hope that cuts won’t be as significant as they appear to be.

“Do remember that the budget is a proposed one, so we very often see that the cuts to funding aren’t as severe in the final approved budget,” Comvalius-Goddard said.

Featured Image by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor

About Cole Dady 77 Articles
Cole was a news editor for The Heights in 2018.