17 Mar 2017   |   Viewpoint

‘Know-Nothing’ Trump cuts science funding – and opens a door for Europe

Budget cuts proposed in Washington ignore what we know about the value of science. To support science everywhere, join us April 22 on the streets, at Science March Brussels

BRUSSELS – Students of American history will recall the brief rise and fall of an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic political party in the 1840s and 1850s called the “Know Nothings.” Thursday in Washington, their modern inheritors in the White House proposed a radical cut in US science funding – and in the process opened new opportunities in science for Europe and the rest of the world.

The cuts were a piece of political theatre – of the horror genre. On the block is 18 per cent of the world’s largest civilian science programme, the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The Energy Department’s landmark labs face a 15 per cent cut. State Department’s science diplomacy is on the block. As a measure of the unease around the plan, White House spokesman Sean Spicer had to resort in its defence to the bizarre suggestion that a lot of the savings could come simply from consolidating NIH buildings from seven facilities to three. (In fact, the NIH has 27 institutes and centres – though by far the biggest is the headquarters in Bethesda, Md.).

The outcry from the US science establishment has been predictably intense. And in fact, the odds of the NIH cuts, in particular, surviving Congress are slim. It’s often joked that, in the geriatric US Senate, the one bipartisan issue on which Republicans and Democrats agree is a desire not to die – and so medical research wins their votes year after year.

Yet it’s the political optics that matter: It’s a 140-character Twitter budget that, on a quick read, appears to fulfil Trump’s campaign rhetoric to end the climate hoax, drain the swamp, and keep out immigrants (America’s research universities, like many in Europe, depend on foreign students to balance their books).

The science payback: at least 20%

But it also flies in the face of any economic analysis of the value of science. A study by the Battelle Memorial Institute concluded that every dollar that the US government had spent on the Human Genome Project in the 1990s returned $141 to the US economy, as the biotech and pharmaceutical industries boomed and the knock-on effects multiplied. A UK study, by the Centre for Economics and Business Research, found physics-based industries contribute €3.8 trillion to the European economy. Individual labs can have outsize returns: The World Wide Web was born in 1989 with a coding invention at CERN. (See this 2015 Science|Business report on the value of ‘big science’.)

And as luck would have it, on the very day the Trump cuts were announced in Washington, the European Commission in Brussels released a new economic meta-analysis of the value of research and innovation. It found that about two-thirds of economic growth in Europe “can be traced back to innovation, broadly defined.” It estimates the return of public investment in research and innovation at about 20 per cent – with EU programmes higher.

But Trump’s ignorance is Europe’s opportunity. Right now, in Brussels, a long, slow debate is beginning on the future of EU research and innovation programmes. The current Framework Programme, Horizon 2020, which invests an average €11 billion a year, will end in 2020. Will what comes next represent a rise, or a fall, from that level?

In the European Parliament, several MEPs are urging a funding jump of about a third in the 2021-27 Framework. Some parts of the programme, such as the European Research Council and the Marie Curie fellowships, have broad cross-party support. And as that EU economic report might suggest, the Commission staff is preparing its arguments. But they face a stiff headwind. Brexit will deprive them of their strongest supporter in the Council; and other priorities – migration, terrorism, defence – will claim more budget.

The same issues are playing out in several member-states. In the UK, the Brexit-means-Brexit government surprised many by volunteering a jump in its own research funding over the next few years, to support British universities during the transition. But in France so far, science has been most prominent as an anti-Trump talking point – with the government advertising its welcome to scientists who want to flee the US. And in southern and eastern Europe, most governments have continued constraining their R&D budgets as an unaffordable luxury, rather than an investment in prosperity.

Science March Brussels

Yet this is exactly the moment when Europe should be rising to the science challenge; if the US abdicates its No. 1 science position, Europe can reclaim it for itself. But that takes courage – and most of the political class in Europe hasn’t shown itself up to the task so far. It’s time for the rest of us to do something.

On April 22, in cities around the world, supporters of science will gather for rallies and marches. This started as an anti-Trump expression; but it is now a broader house, of organisations and individuals who care about our future and think a respect for science – in its methods, conclusions and support – is more important now than ever.

In Brussels, we at Science|Business are joining other organisations and individuals in endorsing the local edition, Science March Brussels. We urge you to be with us on the Place de la Monnaie in central Brussels from 1400-1800 on 22 April.

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