MIT Faculty Newsletter  
Vol. XXXI No. 5
May / June 2019
The Danger to Civilian Science
from the Growing Pentagon Budget
Greetings to You the Graduates –
And to Your Families!
Time to Up Our Game
An Update on MIT's Climate Action Plan
Rick Danheiser New Faculty Chair
Random Faculty Dinner Notes
Academic Year 2018-2019
Hayden Library Renovation:
What You Should Know
Introducing the Faculty Committee
on Campus Planning
Should MIT Break All Ties With Saudi Arabia?
U. S. Discretionary Spending 2017
Printable Version


The Danger to Civilian Science
from the Growing Pentagon Budget

One of the clearest expressions of national values and national priorities is the annual budget voted by the U.S. Congress, the Congressional Discretionary Budget (see Numbers in this issue). This does not include the major mandatory federal programs Social Security and Medicare, which are essentially trust funds that citizens pay into and then receive payments back later in life. However, for higher education and for basic, climate, energy, and biomedical research, the discretionary budget is key.

Research intensive universities such as MIT are deeply dependent on federal budget investments that come through grants and contracts from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, and other related agencies.

These pay the salaries and benefits of graduate students, research assistants, and postdoctoral fellows; fund the purchase of instruments and computation; and support the overall operation of the host institution paying for a fraction of heating, electricity, and general support services. It is these investments that generated within the U.S. the world’s most productive scientific teams over the past 70 years. And it is this pool of highly trained scientific workers that spawned the historic explosions of computer science and manufacture, and biotechnology and pharmaceutical, industries in and around Cambridge. And that same pool brings the leading technology corporations in the world to establish centers nearby, such as Google, Microsoft, Pfizer, Novartis, Takeda, and Shire.

The federal budget process begins each year when the President introduces his budget. The Congress, not required to follow the President’s proposals, then develops its own Budget Resolution. In the final stage the budget is broken into 12 areas, each overseen by House and Senate Appropriations Committees that vote on the actual sums to be made available.

The political reality of the discretionary budget is that more than 50% – that is 50% of our income tax dollars – goes to Pentagon accounts.

About half of that goes to the corporations of the defense industry for weapons purchases. There is a compelling literature indicating that a great deal of this spending – such as the proposed $1.7 trillion nuclear weapons upgrades – will not increase national security, but are better understood as the business plans for ensuring the continuing profitability of the weapons industry.

All other civilian programs in housing, education, basic and biomedical research, environmental protection, food stamps and social services, Veterans Administration, agriculture, and sustainable energy development have to be funded by the remaining dollars.

President Trump’s budget this year calls for one of the largest peacetime increases in Pentagon spending since the end of WWII. The total request is more than the military budgets of the next seven largest nations combined.

Given the tax cuts passed last year, to fund the increases the President called for across-the-board cuts of 5%-15% in all the programs on the civilian side of the budget. These cuts would significantly retard and damage almost all the research programs that our nation depends upon for a better future.

The Pentagon budget does fund a significant amount of research, addressing military needs. But this spending is not focused on major civilian needs – alleviating chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, limiting climate change, developing sustainable energy sources, preventing environmental pollution and degradation, and increasing the efficiency of civilian mass transit.

Congress is unlikely to follow the President’s lead, but as this issue went to press the Defense Appropriations Committee voted for a budget of more than $700 billion, approaching 60% of the discretionary budget.

Interested citizens trying to follow this process will encounter the obscure process of “budget caps” dating from 2012 budget legislation. These have been used as mechanisms by Congressional hawks to limit civilian spending, and by Congressional human service advocates as a mechanism to limit Pentagon spending. Lifting the caps allows both sides of the budget to grow, probably funded by increasing the deficit. Maintaining the caps would limit both sides of the budget to lesser totals.

Unfortunately, although most Americans have annually paid their income taxes, no agency of the U.S. government reports back to the taxpayers how Congress spends their tax dollars. This is an arena that desperately needs more transparency and better Congressional communication back to constituents, if citizens are to be able to express their budget priorities.

Editorial Subcommittee

Sally Haslanger
Jonathan King
Ceasar McDowell
Robert Redwine


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