Is the Trump administration changing course with new R&D policy?

Federal research and development spending has been on the decline for many years, but a new Trump administration policy plan for fiscal year 2021 could mark a change in ideology for how the White House approaches such spending.

An Aug. 30 memorandum issued by the Office of Management and Budget to the heads of federal agencies calls on them to focus on five priorities in formulating their budget proposals for 2021: security; leadership in industries of the future; energy and environmental leadership; health and bioeconomic innovation; and space exploration and commercialization.

“America’s rise as the global leader in science and technology began shortly after World War II, during which the federal government began investing significantly in basic and applied research, infrastructure and education across many disciplines. From then until now — during America’s First Bold Era in S&T — these federal investments helped create a massive, multisector American S&T enterprise consisting of federal agencies, world-leading colleges and universities, private industry, non-profit organizations and federal and National Laboratories,” the memo said.

“Success will depend, in large part, on our ability to leverage — in entirely new and creative partnership and collaborative frameworks — the multisector S&T enterprise that emerged during the First Bold Era. It will depend upon striking a balance between the openness of our research ecosystem and the protection of our ideas and research outcomes. It will depend upon ensuring that our research environments are diverse, safe, inclusive and accommodating, as well as free from unnecessary administrative burdens.”

Agencies have been asked to prioritize five actions to promote American R&D: build a diverse and highly skilled workforce; create and support research environments that promote American values; support high-risk and high-reward transformative research; leverage the power of data; and build and leverage multisector partnerships.

The document offers no concrete funding numbers or promises of increased budgets for 2021. Agencies will soon be formulating budget requests to send to the White House, which will likely release its official FY21 proposal to Congress in February 2020.

The memo could signal to agencies that their R&D budget requests should be expanded, though recent White House efforts to cut federal spending may limit R&D expansion or require those funds to be compensated for by reducing spending in another area.

Overall, federal investment in R&D has declined consistently over the past few decades.

According to August 2019 research released by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, federal R&D investment peaked in the mid 1960s, when it constituted over a 2 percent share of U.S. gross domestic product.

As of 2018, federal R&D investment made up just a .6 percent share of GDP, and investment would need to increase by nearly 300 percent to meet the levels set at 1964, when the United States was in the midst of the space race and invested most heavily in R&D.

Part of the Trump administration’s R&D push includes focus on the technologies and partnerships that will be necessary to send astronauts back to the moon in 2024, which will be used as a testing ground for eventually sending manned spacecraft to Mars.

Historically, government R&D has been responsible for some of the United States’ biggest technological innovations, such as the creation of the internet, GPS navigation and the microchip.

Agency leaders and members of industry have recently acknowledged that the old model of the government investing the majority of the funds for new technologies and scientific discoveries, while the private sector finds monetary value in the discoveries, is untenable in today’s environment.

The Trump administration has also moved to cut funding from key R&D agencies, with both the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and Science and Technology Directorate received funding cuts in the White House’s 2020 budget proposal that would force them to close or deprioritize certain initiatives.

The administration has also been accused of attacking federal scientists — particularly those that research the effects of climate change — and a plan to move two USDA research agencies from Washington, D.C., to Kansas City is likely to result in a majority of those research-focused employees leaving the agency. OMB Director Mick Mulvaney recently celebrated such departures.

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