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Commentary: How Not to Make America Great Again

March 16, 2017
By: Dan Berglund

The Trump Administration’s skinny budget proposal released today calls itself, “A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again.” From the information contained in the document, it is clear the Administration does not view science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship and the economic development efforts built around those activities as the path forward to making “America great again.” The program eliminations and drastic cuts are not the way to move the country forward economically. So what is behind this proposal? Two things: 1) a fight over the proper role of the federal government in the economy, and 2) a negotiating tactic to attempt to lull advocates into thinking program survival or lesser cuts are a victory. A full community response is needed and all of us must get off the sidelines and on to the playing field.

The budget blueprint proposes drastic cuts for research at NIH, DOE’s Office of Science, NOAA and EPA and would eliminate a score of federal programs that serve as the cornerstone of federal activity in supporting an innovation economy, including the Economic Development Administration, the Manufacturing Extension Partnership, ARPA- E, the Appalachian Regional Commission, SBA’s Regional Innovation Clusters program and CDFI Fund, among others. (The National Science Foundation is not mentioned in the proposal, so details on how much the Administration will propose it be cut will not be available until the full budget is released in April or May. Similarly, the Regional Innovation Strategies program is not mentioned specifically in the budget proposal.) All of these proposals are against the aims of SSTI’s policy platform for federal support of innovation economies.

Motivations behind the budget proposal

There appear to be two primary motivations behind the budget proposal: 1) a fight once again over the role of the federal government in the economy, and 2) a negotiating tactic to attempt to lull advocates into thinking program survival or lesser cuts are a victory.

 Throughout the 62-page document there are recycled ideological talking points to justify program elimination. Many comments contained in the document indicate a fundamental lack of understanding of the programs they propose to eliminate or the belief that the federal government has no role in economic development, including: 

  • EDA has “lim­ited measurable impacts and duplicates other Federal programs”
  • MEP centers would “transition solely to non-Federal revenue sources, as was originally intended when the program was established”
  • Some SBA programs including Regional Innovation Clusters are targeted because “the private sector provides effective mechanisms to foster local business development and investment”
  • ARPA-E should be eliminated because “the private sector is better positioned to finance disruptive energy research and development and to commercialize innovative technologies”

Never mind that numerous reports have been done about EDA’s economic impact, that Congress reauthorized the MEP program just last year with a funding structure that includes federal funding and without federal funding the remaining centers would drop their focus on small and medium-sized manufacturers, and that the private sector alone does not provide effective mechanisms to encourage economic development or disruptive energy R&D. 

Beyond a clear ideological view that the federal government has no role in promoting economic growth — a position rejected since at least the early 1800s when the federal government funded canals and other key infrastructure items, it is hard to view this proposal as anything more than a negotiating tactic. As anyone who has bought a house or bargained for an item at a flea market knows, you start with a low ball offer knowing that you’ll settle higher and that both you and the seller will ultimately be happy with the final price. 

But this budget is not a real estate negotiation and settling for reduced cuts and declaring victory should not be an option for any of us. 

A bright spot

This budget proposal is just the first step. Before it came out, House Republican appropriators were signaling unease. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-PA) observed in Politico, “The President will propose and the Congress will dispose.” Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR) was quoted in the same article saying, “Trying to solve for a deficit in the hundreds of billions of dollars cannot be accomplished through deeper cuts to discretionary programs without terrific harm to both the economy and a lot of innocent people.” 

There are strong supporters in Congress for investments in science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, but for them to secure the funding needed, they need to hear from organizations and constituents that this funding and these programs are important to them. 

What you should do

It does not matter if you work for a nonprofit organization, a university, the government, or the private sector: each of us has a role to play in making the case for federal support for science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship. Here are things you can do: 

  • Join our advocacy effort by financially supporting the Innovation Advocacy Council, an initiative of SSTI (contact Jason Rittenberg at 614.901.1690 for more information);
  • Go to Capitol Hill and meet with your elected officials and their staff about the importance of these federal investments;
  • Invite your elected officials and their staff to see the work you are doing and meet some of the people who have benefited from your work;
  • Put out regular information to your local media and make readily available on your website the results your work has had and success stories involving real people; and,
  • March in the March for Science on April 22 in Washington, D.C., or in one of the satellite marches.

For those of you that run non-profit organizations and claim that you can’t do any of the above because it is lobbying, please refer to this IRS site and this one to get a better understanding of what nonprofits can do. We can lobby, but most of what is described above does not even count as lobbying. Confused on what you can do? Contact your CPA or attorney for guidance. 

If you’re not in the position to act on your own on federal relations, make the case internally at your organization on the importance of federal involvement and funding, and do any of the above bullet items that you can do on your own. 

A concluding thought

There is broad popular support for an economic growth agenda focused on innovation, science, technology, and entrepreneurship. We regret the Administration’s initial proposal would send this country in a different direction. We look forward to doing our part and working with others to make our case to Congress.

federal budget