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Budget Cuts to Science Programs Are Threatening Our Global Leadership

By making substantial cuts to a key research-funding agency, Congress has us falling farther and farther behind our competitor nations – and if America wants to stay the world’s first in science and innovation, we must catch up.

In March, China’s central government announced that it would increase its spending on science and technology by a full 10% in 2024. In April, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proposed a 2024-2025 budget that calls for a 30% increase in government spending on academic research and student aid over the next five years.

As other nations announced ambitious science funding goals, guess what was happening back here in the United States? Congress was passing a FY24 budget that slashed funding for the National Science Foundation – one of our main research-funding agencies – by almost half a billion dollars.

What makes this short-sighted cut even more painful is that it comes at a time when, under a plan passed by Congress in 2022, NSF should be getting $6 billion more in FY24 than it actually received.

This under-investment is a major barrier to continued American leadership in science and technology – and thus a major barrier to the American innovation, economic growth, and competitiveness that is the direct result of our international scientific leadership. NSF supports basic research through research grants, primarily to U.S. universities, to generate new knowledge and scientific advances that help to fuel U.S. innovation.

Federally supported basic research at universities has led to countless scientific advancements that make Americans’ lives better, healthier, safer, and more prosperous. These range from the touch-screen technology that enables smartphones and tablets to the mRNA vaccines that helped bring the COVID pandemic under control to the GPS technology that guides millions of people to their destinations every day.

Cuts to NSF’s budget endanger all kinds of scientific research designed to address national and global challenges – but especially research in cutting-edge and emerging science and technology . For instance, cuts to NSF’s budget endanger a new group of National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes as well as a fledgling program that allows AI researchers access to important data to advance AI capabilities. Furthermore, NSF is training the quantum computing workforce essential to remain competitive in this rapidly expanding field – a race where we’re currently in a dead heat with competitor nations like China.

It's not just American AI and quantum research, education, and training that could suffer if NSF continues to be squeezed. Unless these cuts are rectified, they could also threaten the future of a series of new “NSF Engines” grants designed to promote regional innovation centers in states across the country ; these centers are advancing knowledge in areas like sustainable energy, agricultural research, semiconductors, and healthcare innovation.

And in the long run, reduced availability of funds will decrease grant success for all researchers interested in working with NSF. Currently, the agency is able to fund only about a quarter of the research proposals it receives; significant funding cuts would further discourage researchers from going through the effort to make grant applications to NSF. Cuts like these create headwinds against America’s efforts to encourage more home-grown STEM talent – compounding the domestic workforce challenges we already face in key technology fields like microelectronics manufacturing. 

How have we fallen so far behind – and how can we work toward fixing it in FY25 and future years? Let’s start by re-focusing on the visionary goal we set for ourselves just two years ago. The 2022 CHIPS and Science Act was a bold piece of legislation that took two major steps toward strengthening the American science and innovation ecosystem: it provided one-time funding to jump-start domestic semiconductor manufacturing, and it authorized significant long-term investments in federal research-funding agencies like NSF.

But, unlike its semiconductor funding, the bill’s authorizations for government science agencies like NSF were merely funding targets – not real money. It still required lawmakers to appropriate the actual dollars for the science agencies; that has not happened.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest victims of all the federal budget-wrangling in the last couple of years has been science funding. We’re currently already more than $8.5 billion behind the funding levels the CHIPS and Science Act envisioned for scientific research over five fiscal years (FY23-FY27).

America’s leading research universities and other research institutions are asking Congress to restore the cuts that NSF is enduring in FY24 and set it back on the visionary trajectory that the CHIPS and Science Act established. It’s a trajectory that reflects the agency’s immense responsibilities to discover the innovations we need – and to train the people we need – to keep America first in science and technology in an increasingly competitive world.