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By: Jennifer L.S. Knaack

It has been just over a month since the new administration released its 2018 fiscal year budgetary plan  for the United States, “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” It outlines planned cuts to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) amounting to just over 18% of the 2017 annualized continuing resolution level, a proposed 31% funding cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, and potential cuts to the Department of Energy totaling 5.6%, including a 20% cut to the Office of Science. Ultimately, these reductions are still just a “plan” until the budget is passed by Congress.

Large cuts to science are obviously detrimental to both basic and applied research. The NIH, for example, has long been a major source of funding for research laboratories despite increasing competition for grants and decreasing success rates. What is the impact of decreasing funding to NIH? Of course, the immediate effect will be less productive laboratories and fewer opportunities for investigators to branch out into specialties that do not fit within new funding agency budgets. A decreased budget will also result in new investigators struggling to establish their research programs. This is not an appealing scenario for someone contemplating a career in academia and will discourage many aspiring and accomplished scientists from becoming academicians.

As a newer faculty member, these cuts concern me. As a scientist and educator, the long-term implications scare me even more. Without funding for research, the opportunities for students to receive graduate degrees will decrease in the U.S. We already struggle to recruit our youth into the sciences and have seen a slight decline in the enrollment of U.S. citizens and permanent residents in graduate programs in science and engineering since 2008. In contrast, the number of temporary resident graduate students in these programs has increased by 35% since 2008. The administration’s new visa restrictions and potential travel bans may reduce graduate program enrollment by temporary residents. The result is that enrollment in graduate programs, as a whole, may decrease over the next several years.

On a personal and anecdotal level, I have spoken with many of my college’s foreign graduate students and they have expressed fear that companies will not hire them because of the uncertainty of H1B visas. They have also expressed reluctance to visit family in their home countries as they may not be able to return to the U.S. to complete their degrees. A few students have, sadly, expressed regret in coming to the U.S. for their education, which adds a significant financial aspect to this issue, as it could result in a decrease in tuition income in our nation’s universities if other international students believe it is not worthwhile or safe to come to the U.S.

Can America truly be “first” with a reduced role in sciences? Are we really putting our best interests first and making America a leader by cutting funds to science? I don’t think so. A combination of the new administration’s proposed budget cuts and lack of support for foreign students will ultimately reduce our role as leaders in science and seriously undermine our progress in developing new treatments for diseases. The only saving grace is that this blueprint budget is just that, a blueprint, at least for now.

Do you feel passionate about this topic? If so, I encourage you to contact your local representatives to let them know how these budget cuts will affect your education, career, university, and community.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the views of Mercer University or Mercer University’s College of Pharmacy.

Jennifer Knaack, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences at Mercer University where she develops diagnostic methods for exposure to toxins. She is also an expert in chemical weapons.