President Trump issues his FY 2020 budget, what does it look like for the mathematical sciences, and what happens next?


On March 11 President Trump released his proposal, titled “A Budget for a Better America,” outlining how the government should make investments for the FY2020. As in his first two, his third annual budget includes massive cuts for science. In FY2019, the NSF received \$8.1 billion. There are areas connected to the mathematical sciences that are prioritized by the White House (and described on page 269 of the Analytic Perspective on Research and Development), including artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) continues to be the single biggest funder of research in the mathematical sciences done at colleges and universities. Jeff Mervis, of Science, writes “If adopted, the 2020 budget would be NSF’s smallest since 2013. NSF officials estimate that the foundation would make 1000 fewer new awards (the figure was 9000 in 2018) and that the success rate for grant applicants will dip by 1%, to 21%.”

For FY2020, the President has proposed a 12% decrease (to \$7.1 billion) from FY2019 for the NSF overall. The AMS is advocating for \$9 billion for the NSF; we have submitted written testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee describing our rationale for this amount. Most of the NSF’s budget goes directly to “Research and Related Activities” which, for FY2020, is budgeted at \$5.7 million (a 13% decrease from FY2019).

The NSF has the final say about how the \$5.7 will be distributed amongst the eight directorates but proposed cuts to those range from an increase of 4% (to Integrative Activities) to a cut of 20% (to Polar Programs).[1] Mathematical and Physical Sciences (MPS) is marked for the second largest decrease, of 16%. For FY2019, MPS had one of the largest increases. Inside MPS, funds get distributed amongst seven disciplinary sciences and the Office of Multidisciplinary Activities. The Division of Mathematical Sciences (DMS) is slated for a 14.5% decrease; the only division in MPS doing better is Chemistry (with a more modest proposed cut of 13%).

DMS supports core research, and building the next generation of scientists by supporting early-career researchers. About 48% of the DMS funds go to new research grants each year, and the remaining funds support grants made in prior years and the infrastructure of the community of mathematical scientists. At the recent annual meeting of the AMS Committee on Science Policy, DMS Director Juan Meza reported that about 75% of DMS grants go to individual investigators, about 15% to the math institutes, and the remaining to infrastructure. The success rate for individual investigators proposals is now about 25%, and this is pretty uniform for early and later career proposers.

Working with other NSF divisions, DMS provides support for the Big Ideas, primarily for “Quantum Leap”, “Harnessing the Data Revolution”, and “Understanding the Rules of Life”. In addition, DMS partners with other NSF divisions, and with other agencies (e.g., NIH) and private foundations (e.g., Simons Foundation) to support a broad set of research areas. There are many concerning details about the President’s budget proposal for the NSF; in addition to the cuts discussed above, the Graduate Research Fellowship Program would support only 1600 new fellows, as compared to 2000 that NSF has been able to support in recent years.

Higher education is also under fire. For example, the TEACH Grant program would be diminished; this program helps students pay for college if they agree to teach in subjects–including in mathematics–that lack teachers. There would be a very large cut (over 55%) to the Federal Work Study program, which provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need. These, and other cuts to programs that assist with college tuition, would make a college education unavailable to even more Americans.

While I am (mostly) writing here about slashes to scientific research, and this certainly is a huge concern for our community, I am hyper-aware of my privileged position as a tenured academic mathematician. My heart truly goes out to the millions of kids living in poverty. Low-income kids will lose big, even without much left to lose. If the President’s budget were adopted, food stamps would be cut significantly and subsidies for housing would too. Public education would get less funding. Money now used for after-school programs for low-income students would be diverted to help support vouchers for private schools. There is less and less possibility that these kids will be showing up at college after (if) they complete high school. This outlook does NOT fit with the message to “Make America Great Again.”

The next step in the budget process is for Congress to respond to the President’s budget with their own version. And, ultimately, Congress and the White House must agree. Congress has begun this process but no numbers from either chamber are out yet about the NSF. The House has already indicated that it is not agreeing with the President on many of the cuts to higher education.

You can help by asking your Congressional delegation to ensure strong funding for the NSF — take action here:

Despite knowing how the budget process is supposed to unfold, it has not done so in many years and this has resulted in us living with continuing resolution after continuing resolution, interspersed with government shutdowns. There are various proposals out there for changing the process altogether. Some reform is needed; we are stuck and this is hurting Americans and America.

It is interesting, even ironic, that the administration touts “America First” while failing to support the scientific research and investment in education that is necessary to make the US truly competitive. Other countries are making large, and increasing investments in basic research. Lest you think this criticism of slashing science is partisan, Senator Lamar Alexander, a senior Republican who holds positions of leadership in the Senate, said “I would tell President Trump and the Office of Management and Budget that science, research and innovation is what made America first, and I recommend that he add science research and innovation to his ‘America First’ agenda.”

Let’s end with some good news. Last year the President proposed similar cuts but Congress did not take his advice. Congress typically does not follow the President’s lead on the budget. Trump had proposed a cut to the NSF of 4% last year, but Congress in fact raised it, by about 4%.

[1] In this paragraph, percentage changes are from FY2018 to FY2020, as final numbers for the FY2019 distribution within NSF are not yet known.

About Karen Saxe

Karen Saxe is Director of the AMS Office of Government Relations which works to connect the mathematics community with Washington decision-makers who affect mathematics research and education. Over many years she has contributed much time to the AMS, MAA, and AWM, including service as vice president of the MAA and in policy and advocacy work with all three. She was the 2013-2014 AMS Congressional Fellow, working for Senator Al Franken on education issues, with focus on higher education and STEM education. In Minnesota she has served on the Citizens Redistricting Commission following the 2010 census and serves on the Common Cause Minnesota Redistricting Leadership Circle. She has three children and, when not at work especially enjoys being with them and reading, hiking and sharing good food and wine and beer with family and friends.
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