Last week the Trump administration sent an initial 2018 budget plan to Congress, which proposed dramatic spending reductions for most federal agencies. The deepest cuts targeted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and programs related to climate science at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Congress must ultimately approve the final budget, and there is widespread skepticism that legislators will endorse Trump’s priorities. But what if there were a way for the agencies to absorb the proposed cuts while simultaneously encouraging innovation and stimulating collaboration within federally funded labs?
The centerpiece of the White House budget plan is to add $54 billion in military spending by making cuts to all other discretionary programs. About two-thirds of the nation’s $4-trillion budget pays for mandatory spending, such as Social Security and Medicare benefits. The majority of what’s left goes to the military, while the remainder supports all other federal agencies. Without increasing the deficit, adding $54 billion to the $550 billion defense budget would require a 10% cut to the rest of the government. In Trump’s budget, the reductions are not distributed evenly: the EPA is slashed by 31%, while NOAA might face a cut of 17%.
Although reactions to Trump’s budget plan have been largely unfavorable, even among conservatives, the new administration clearly intends to scale back support for federally funded labs. After years of enduring stagnant and even slightly declining budgets, the labs have already streamlined their operations. They have no easy way of absorbing large budget cuts without sacrificing essential facilities and personnel that provide valuable services to the public. In the shadow of this uncertain budgetary future, it might be time for federal labs to treat their scientific staff more like university professors.
Perhaps because universities operate on an academic schedule, faculty positions are typically 9-month contracts, just like public school teachers. Those who are satisfied with a 9-month salary can spread it over the entire year, but universities allow professors to seek external funding to support their research during the summer. By contrast, staff scientists at federally funded labs generally have 12-month contracts, so they can focus their efforts on the priorities of their government sponsors. This stability allows federally funded scientists to work on issues that are higher-risk or longer-term than typical grant-funded projects. But it also reduces the incentives for innovation and collaboration, qualities that are implicitly nurtured in researchers who rely on grant funding.
I worked as a staff scientist at NCAR for six years before my position was lost to a previous round of budget cuts. For the past five years, I have raised all of my support by writing grant proposals to government agencies and private foundations. The “sink or swim” reality of working entirely on grant funding is not something that I would recommend to anyone, particularly in the current funding climate. But it forced me to be more innovative and collaborative than I might have been otherwise. Based on my experience at NCAR, and now looking from the outside, I believe that full-time federal sponsorship may actually stifle these virtues in many excellent scientists.
Federally funded labs could give themselves budget flexibility without eliminating jobs by offering staff scientists a 9-month instead of 12-month contract. Like university professors, researchers could optionally seek external funding from government or commercial sources to restore their previous salaries. This may dilute the research focus dictated by their federal sponsors, but that consequence is unavoidable with any substantial budget cuts. The silver lining to this approach is that it would reward innovation and stimulate collaboration inside and outside the laboratories, while encouraging public-private partnerships to maintain essential facilities and services.
Whether or not Trump’s budget is greeted with enthusiasm in the halls of Congress, federally funded labs and the public could benefit from renegotiating the contracts of staff scientists. Once the change is implemented, the labs could reallocate existing funds to hire new junior scientists in every research area — something that hasn’t been possible for years. In one stroke, they would establish incentives for seeking outside funding, encourage innovation, stimulate collaboration, and inject fresh talent into their organizations. It may be a tough sell for the current staff, but the ends would justify the means.