On Tuesday morning, the Trump administration issued executive orders freezing all grants and contracts at the Environmental Protection Agency, and implementing gag orders on employees at the EPA, the US Department of Agriculture, and National Institute of Health. (The USDA gag order was ultimately reversed Tuesday evening.) By targeting three of the largest sources of federal research and development funding, these orders quickly provoked outrage among scientists, whose jobs, students, and research often depend on this support. They also raised questions about the impact of what massive funding cuts would mean for the many public institutions that rely on them—none of which have as large a stake as University of Washington.
Since 1972, UW has received more federal research and development funding than any other public university in the country (PDF), and is second among all universities only to John Hopkins. The economic impact of this investment on our state and the broader region has been enormous: in the 2015 fiscal year alone (PDF), for instance, the UW brought in over a billion dollars of federal funding, generating an estimated $12.5 billion in economic impact and contributing to the salaries of 14,251 employees. (At 30,200 full-time positions, UW is also the third-largest employer in Washington State.) This funding also represents over a quarter of UW’s total income, and overhead from research grants provides support for everything from administrative costs to facilities maintenance.
How daily operations and research output will actually be affected by an anti-science, budget-slashing Trump administration will depend on which agencies are targeted for reductions in funding. As of press time, only programs funded by the EPA—which awarded $2.4 million to UW researchers last fiscal year—will be directly affected. But the same power the White House is wielding against the agency tasked with cleaning up Flint’s drinking water has the potential to similarly affect both NIH and NSF, which provided a collective $638 million to UW in 2016. Though permanent changes to either of agency’s budget will require congressional approval, reduced funding would have a cascading effect on personnel, research, and facilities.
In human terms, the implications of systematic cuts to federal research and development funding are wide-ranging. Tuesday’s freeze on EPA funding may strip graduate students and other employees supported by grants and fellowships from the agency of their salary and health care, at least temporarily. Additional cuts would have a similar effect on those of the 14,251 employees who lack guaranteed income through UW by other means, such as laboratory technicians. Already among the most vulnerable academic employees at the university—these “soft money” workers are also disproportionately women and people of color.
In subsequent grant cycles, reduced funding for fellowship and assistantship positions will mean a reduced workforce and less money for research expenses. Though increasingly important, state and industry grants remain less than 30% (PDF) of the total R&D funding UW receives, making private investment an insufficient solution to making up budget shortfalls. Ultimately, these trends will result in reduced research productivity, doing incalculable harm to the myriad endeavors scientific research supports—and making it less likely that the quality of work that has produced seven Nobel Prize winners since 1989 will be repeated.
The threats UW’s research program and broader mission are now facing come in the context of a 2016 presidential campaign where science policy was largely an afterthought. After the reality of November 8th’s results set in, however, scientists have become increasingly concerned that research in the United States is facing an existential threat on par with Canadian PM Stephen Harper’s 2006-2015 “War on Science.” These fears have been fed by Trump’s cabinet appointments and science advisers (which include several climate change deniers, a vaccine skeptic, politicians grossly unqualified for their intended roles, and a number of industry insiders) and a December request for a list of staff members at the Department of Energy involved in climate change research (though this was later rescinded).
* Disclosure: I’m supported by research funding from the NSF and the Department of Defense.