Opinion by Preston Gralla

Trump’s budget: Say goodbye to U.S. tech pre-eminence

If enacted, the budget would go a long way toward changing the U.S. from a leader to a laggard in new technologies

trump federal budget
Joshua Roberts, Reuters (Reuters)

The internet was created thanks to funding from the U.S. government — and the United States is still riding the economic boom and wave of creativity it unleashed. That’s just one example of how government spending has fueled innovation that drives the world’s largest economy.

But now, thanks to President Trump’s recent budget proposal, the U.S. faces losing its worldwide tech leadership. Far from making America great again, the budget would go a long way toward making the U.S. a laggard rather than a leader in new technologies.

Since the middle of the 19th century, no matter their disagreements, Republicans and Democrats have been united in their support for funding science and technologies. Abraham Lincoln is justly remembered for saving the Union and ending slavery, but his achievements having to do with technology and science are often overlooked. In 1862 he signed the Pacific Railroad Bill, which helped fund the building of the transcontinental railroad, a pre-eminent technology of its day, which transformed the country and our economy in ways that were just as dramatic as the internet’s effect today.

That same year, Lincoln signed into law the Land Grant College Act to fund universities to study agriculture and mechanics, two cutting-edge technologies of the time. Eventually, the universities branched off into other sciences and technologies. Some of the world’s greatest research universities were founded or funded by that act, including MIT, Cornell and Berkeley. The act did much to ensure that the U.S. became the world’s tech leader.

With Trump’s budget proposal, all that may change. Many details are lacking, because they haven’t yet been provided, but what’s there shows that the budget would be the largest assault on tech and science spending the country has ever seen.

Let’s start with one glaring example: The budget could well make sure that China will take over leadership in supercomputing. Federal supercomputing research is funded by the Department of Energy's Office of Science. That office’s $5 billion budget is being cut by $900 million. Even before that budget cut, China was threatening to take the supercomputing lead away from the U.S. Several months before the budget was released, experts at the National Security Agency, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and other agencies warned that China would likely take over supercomputing leadership as early as 2020. A report called “U.S. Leadership in High Performance Computing (HPC),” issued in December 2016, warned, “To maintain U.S. leadership in HPC, a surge of USG [U.S. government] investment and action is needed.” With a $900 million cut to the agency that provides supercomputing research, no surge is on the way.

Being a leader in supercomputing means more than just bragging rights. The report warns that losing supercomputing leadership could “undermine profitable parts of the U.S. economy,” make it more difficult to make strides in efficient, high-tech manufacturing, and endanger national security.

Money for science and technology will be cut throughout the budget, not just at one agency. Under Trump’s plan, the National Institutes of Health would get an 18% reduction. The Environmental Protection Agency's science programs would be slashed by 40%, including all research into climate change. The National Science Foundation, which among other things provides research funds for computing engineering, would be cut by 10%. The list goes on.

Computerworld’s Patrick Thibodeau quotes Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as warning that Trump’s budget “would cripple the science and technology enterprise. The administration's cuts threaten our nation's ability to advance cures for disease [and] maintain our technological leadership.”

Joe Kennedy, senior fellow with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, warns in a blog, “Since these agencies fund a great deal of research in universities, cuts to them may prematurely end many careers among the next generation of research scientists.”

The proposed cuts come amid dangerous signs that the U.S. is already ceding its tech pre-eminence to other countries, notably China. There’s little doubt that there’s a coming boom in spending for green energy. China already spends more than twice the amount the U.S. does for renewable energy, according to a United Nations report called “Global Trends in Renewable Energy Investment 2016.” With federal funding eliminated for climate change, you can be sure the government won’t be spending much for research into green energy.

Robotics is another area in which the U.S. is falling behind. A report from IDC Research says that the Asia Pacific region is the world leader in robotics spending, with $60 billion in 2016, compared to $12.9 billion in the Americas.

And in October 2016, the federal Office of Science and Technology Policy said that China had surpassed the U.S. in research on artificial intelligence and deep learning. It also found that “Current levels of R&D spending [on A.I. and deep learning] are half to one-quarter of the level of R&D investment that would produce the optimal level of economic growth.”

Washington Post writer Brian Fung warned, “When A.I. stands to transform virtually everything including labor, the environment, and the future of warfare and cyberconflict, the United States could be put at a disadvantage if other countries, such as China, get to dictate terms instead.” Given the president’s budget proposal, that seems likely to happen.

Trump’s budget proposal is just that — a proposal. Congress has the power of the purse and prepares a final budget that it sends to the White House. Democrats are in full-throated disapproval of the current budget’s cuts in spending on science and technology, and there are signs that a number of Republicans don’t agree with such cuts. The two parties need to band together and write a budget that won’t threaten our worldwide lead in technology, but instead cement it. They’ve done it in the past. They can do it again — and they need to, if we are to retain our technology pre-eminence.

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