Donald Trump, Long Island and the war on science

Science fiction: President Trump's first federal budget proposal takes a sharp ax to scientific research, posing a significant threat to the Long Island innovation economy.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

There’s worry, if not panic, among the scientists at the heart of the Long Island innovation economy.

Certainly, none are surprised that President Donald Trump, in his first proposed budget, took square aim at the federal funding that is the lifeblood of the nation’s scientific research programs.

This is, after all, a president who calls climate change a hoax, champions coal and selected a former ExxonMobil CEO as his secretary of state. Who wrote that renewable-energy research is “an expensive way of making the tree-huggers feel good about themselves” and who has repeatedly suggested that measles and mumps vaccinations cause autism. Who chose an Environmental Protection Agency director who’s sued the EPA over clean-power and clean-water regulations (and lost) 13 times and who, hours after taking office, signed an executive decree placing a gag order on government scientists – while simultaneously instructing the EPA to remove its climate-change webpages.

Ann-Marie Scheidt: President is thinking backwards.

Science, clearly, is not this president’s strong suit. So the White House’s fiscal assault on scientific research has shocked precisely no one.

What has astonished researchers, and deeply concerned them, is the depth of the funding cuts included in Trump’s budget proposal – primarily, an 18 percent slice, or about $5.8 billion, from the National Institutes of Health and about 20 percent, some $900 million, trimmed from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which bankrolls Brookhaven National Laboratory and other national labs, globally revered as Planet Earth’s shining meccas of pure scientific research.

The president’s proposals are just that – proposals – and Congress will ultimately decide line-item funding in the 2018 federal budget. But the administration’s stance on laboratory science still worries researchers: The draconian cuts may not pass wholesale, but with the starting bar set so low, it’s not hard to imagine compromises with still-severe across-the-board funding cuts.

Needless to say, that’s terrible news for Long Island, where research institutions like BNL, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Hofstra University, the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research and Stony Brook University represent the cornerstones of a regional economy being rebuilt around biotechnology, alternative energy and other scientific pursuits.

“We’re absolutely worried,” said Ann-Marie Scheidt, SBU’s director of economic development. “When you look at what’s proposed for the Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, it really is a backwards-looking budget proposal, in the sense of the basic research that fuels the innovations of the future.”

It’s worth noting that few within Long Island’s innovation sphere are jumping straight to panic. For one thing, insiders note, any programs funded (or defunded) by the fiscal 2018 budget won’t feel the pinch for many months to come.

“Everyone is nervous,” noted Nada Anid, dean of NYIT’s School of Engineering and Computing Sciences in Old Westbury. “But I don’t think [the cuts] will have much of an effect on this fiscal year.”

Bruce Stillman: “Devastating” effects.

Others, noting the give-and-take nature of federal budget negotiations, are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“There isn’t enough detail in the proposed budget blueprint to say specifically how it might impact Brookhaven Lab at this time,” said BNL spokesman Peter Genzer, who manages the Upton laboratory’s Media & Communications Office. “Going forward, we’ll continue to work with decision-makers in both the administration and Congress to emphasize the important role BNL and the national labs play in addressing some of the nation’s highest-priority science and technology challenges.”

But by and large, the regional scientific community’s reaction to a budget plan that cuts almost $6 billion from the NIH – not only threatening research performed by the NIH but weakening medical schools and laboratories that rely on NIH funding – has been pretty much what you’d imagine: if not panic, at least some serious agita.

“The Trump administration’s proposed 18 percent real-dollar cut to the NIH budget would have a devastating effect on biomedical research at CSHL and across the entire country,” said Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory President Bruce Stillman, who noted that “congressional inaction on budgets” has already had a profound effect on the federal grant monies researchers need to do their work.

Stillman, a biochemist who’s served as CSHL president since 2003, pointed to a 20 percent inflation-adjusted decline in NIH spending over the last 13 years, and lamented a proposed increase in 2017 spending that hasn’t materialized, since Congress hasn’t passed a fiscal 2017 budget and is operating on continuing resolutions that maintain 2016 spending levels.

“The costs of doing research in this genome age have only increased,” Stillman added. “So our investigators are receiving less money to perform work that costs much more to do.

“This is seriously eroding the ability of scientists at CSHL and elsewhere to plan ambitious and innovative programs of research.”

Closing the federal science spigot can have more immediate and direct effects. Citing a lack of funding, QB Sonic – a Stony Brook-based startup developing an ultrasound stimulator device to treat osteoporosis – announced in March that it was shutting down, despite inclusion in the state’s Start-Up NY tax-incentives program. Company officials cited a lack of sufficient funding to keep the startup afloat.

Nada Anid: Worried about women in STEM.

Anid, the NYIT dean, suggested sad stories about insufficient funding choking off potential scientific breakthroughs will become common under an administration apparently hell-bent on hiking military spending at any cost.

“If you want to increase Department of Defense funding, I guess you have to get the money from somewhere,” Anid said. “These cuts are going to affect us for sure, and it’s not just research. It’s funding for student tuition and fellowships.”

It’s also a potential blow for programs aimed at increasing the participation of female students in STEM fields (for science, technology, engineering and mathematics), a “top concern” for the dean.

“It all goes hand-in-hand,” Anid added. “And right now, no one is talking much about the science, because of all the distractions in Washington.

“It’s just devastating.”

Some defenders of America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again have suggested that the industries benefiting financially from scientific research – i.e., healthcare and energy – should shoulder more of the research burden. In whacking the DOE’s $300 million Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, for instance, the budget plan notes “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research.”

That’s remarkably silly, according to SBU’s Scheidt, particularly for a president who claims to be a brilliant businessman.

“Industry is responsible to shareholders,” Scheidt said. “Industry has to fund research and development that’s going to feed the bottom line in the near term. The federal government has historically filled the early-stage research gaps necessary to understand the basic physical and life-sciences functions before you get to the [commercialization] stage.

“For basic research, there’s only the federal government.”

While regional stakeholders anxiously await further details, Trump’s science-stifling budget plan has already generated some noticeable ironies. For one thing, it’s set some of the president’s most ardent backers in direct opposition.

Lee Zeldin: Breaking ranks?

Odds-makers won’t blink when U.S. Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) calls Trump’s budget plan “morally obscene,” but when second-term U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY 1) – to date, an unabashed Trump supporter – calls out the president, it’s worth noting.

Zeldin did just that on April 6, lending his signature to a bipartisan Congressional letter –  69 John Hancocks in all – calling on the House Appropriations Committee to spare the DOE Office of Science’s budget from Trump’s rod.

“Providing robust and sustained funding for the Department of Energy, which funds cutting-edge energy research at Brookhaven National Lab and SUNY Stony Brook, is critically important,” Zeldin said in a statement. “This funding must be a top priority this year.”

The budget plan – which also cuts $102 million from NASA’s earth science programs (eliminating four NASA earth-science missions entirely) and reduces the EPA’s budget by 31 percent – has also reinvigorated the collaborative mindset that often engenders scientific advances.

The very real possibility of a substantial cut in federal funding has “certainly increased Stony Brook’s interest in collaborating with industry,” Scheidt noted, while former KeySpan and National Grid U.S. Chairman Bob Catell, now leading SBU’s Advanced Energy Research and Technology Center, agreed the proposed budget cuts put new emphasis on industry partnerships.

“Having industry support incubator companies, both financially and by mentoring students, is key to the innovation economy,” Catell said. “We collaborate with industry to not only develop the new technology, but to commercialize it, and that’s really the key.

“The research is important, but then you have to take it to commercialization.”

Cyndi Hahn, chief of staff at the Feinstein Institute, noted the threatened 18 percent NIH cut is a “dramatic departure from where we think we need to be,” but said the Trump budget plan hardly caught Feinstein principals flatfooted.

In fact, echoing CSHL’s Stillman, Hahn noted that federal research funding “has not kept up with inflation” and “the buying power of the NIH has decreased dramatically for the past 10 years” – and, to that end, said the Feinstein Institute already has its planes in the air.

Cyndi Hahn: Fortune favors the prepared mind.

“This is the same flavor of an old story,” Hahn said. “We’ve already been diversifying our portfolio and pursuing alternative forms of funding, whether that be through private donors or industry partners, to mitigate any further downturns in federal funding.”

That’s not to say the proposed budget wouldn’t have a deleterious effect on Feinstein Institute programs – roughly 70 percent of the institute’s outside funding comes from federal sources, according to Hahn, and the NIH “remains the gold standard and the most significant part of our funding portfolio.”

So, with forces gearing up for the coming budget battle (national scientists are planning a March for Science on Earth Day, April 22), the Feinstein Institute is “nervous,” according to its chief of staff, but not panicked – and, in a further irony, may even be positioned to leverage new opportunities presented by the scientifically tone-deaf budget plan.

“We may be able to recruit individuals who leave other organizations, not just for a lack of funding but even a perceived lack of funding,” she said. “Feinstein is small and nimble enough to move quickly, and in innovative ways.

“Look, we see (annual) awards of about $32 million from the NIH, but a place like Johns Hopkins gets about $600 million,” Hahn added. “So, if the NIH gets a cold, we sneeze, but Johns Hopkins gets the flu.”


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