US HEP Budget News

There’s a HEPAP meeting today, with news about the US HEP budget situation, presentations here. Since the 2016 election physicists have been worried about how the Republican Congress and Trump administration will treat scientific research in general and physics research in particular. For instance, I see that FQXI has just announced the winners of its latest essay contest, with the second place essay by Alyssa Ney (on “The Politics of Fundamentality“) claiming that “it is easy to point to trends in allocation of research funding away from basic research in the sciences”, noting:

Another indication of the present threat to physics funding is U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 proposed budget. This includes a decrease of 18.4% to the Department of Energy’s high energy physics program and a cut of 19.1% to nuclear physics. The budget slashes funding of basic science at the National Science Foundation (NSF) by 13%.

The actual enacted budget numbers for DOE HEP physics are:
FY2015 \$766 million
FY2016 \$795 million
FY2017 \$825 million
FY2018 \$908 million

It’s true that the Trump administration produced a FY2018 budget calling for a cut to \$627.7 million for DOE HEP, but that was no more to be taken seriously than anything else Trump says, and the Republican Congress instead passed a huge (10.1%) increase, to \$908 million. For FY2019 the Trump administration is calling for a DOE HEP budget cut to \$770 million (15.2% cut), but, again, no one should be taking that seriously. It’s still early in the budget process, but the House subcommittee dealing with the FY2019 DOE budget has responded to the request for a cut of 13.9% to DOE Office of Science by instead passing a 5.4% increase (it’s not yet known what the HEP part of that will be). For latest budget numbers, see here.

Over at the NSF, numbers for the Physics directorate for FY2017 are not yet available, but the enacted budget numbers for the NSF as a whole are:

FY2015 \$7,344 million
FY2016 \$7,494 million
FY2017 \$7,472 million
FY2018 \$7,767 million

The Trump administration requested a cut of 11% to NSF for FY2018, instead got a 3.9% increase. They are requesting a 3.8% cut for FY2019, the House subcommittee dealing with this instead has passed a 5.2% increase (to \$8,175 billion).

It should be uncontroversial to point out that the US budget process has been seriously broken for a while. FY 2018 started on Oct. 1, 2017. DOE HEP only recently got the \$908 million number for its budget and now is scrambling as it is “faced with a year’s worth of funding actions in around 4 months”. They’ve been spending their time preparing details of the Trump administration fantasy of how to cut 13.9% out of the FY2019 budget, instead of making rational plans for the future about how to spend the actual budget numbers they will get (OK, maybe they’re dealing with reality in secret…).

In order to avoid any misunderstanding about what I think about the current situation, my take on it is:

  • Until the 2016 election, US scientific research spending was relatively flat, due to the Obama administration’s attempt to reduce deficit spending and respond to Republican outrage at the budget deficit and demands for reductions in non-defense federal spending. We’re now starting to see large increases in research spending, as it becomes clear that whatever the current Republican party cares about, it’s not the deficit or the level of federal spending.
  • Physicists outraged at the Trump administration proposed research cuts need to realize that this, like everything else, is just theater, and understand that the current Republican party has just as little interest in cutting physics research as it ever had in reducing the deficit. Take a look at reality and stop complaining about your research funding. Fueled by huge increases in inequality in US society, truly awful things are happening in this country, but they’re not happening to you, quite the opposite. Stop whining about your science not getting enough respect and funding, and instead try and figure out what can be done to restore a healthy democracy and a more equal society.

Informed comments about HEP funding welcome, those who want to rant about politics are not. Sorry, it’s my blog, so I get to explain my point of view, even though I don’t want to engage here with the diseased post-truth reality TV show politics today’s Republican party has grotesquely exploited to come to power.

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15 Responses to US HEP Budget News

  1. Casey Leedom says:

    Just curious: do you know how to break down those budget numbers into specific sub-fields of HEP? And are there any sub-field trends which are interesting?

  2. Peter Woit says:

    Casey Leedom,

    See for instance slides 6 and 13 of this presentation:

    In recent years HEP theory had seen significant cuts, those are dramatically reversed in the new FY2018 budget with an increase of nearly 30% for theory and computation.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Slide 17 of that presentation that shows that “theory” as previously conceived is not actually seeing an increase. In fact, it still receives a (small) cut this year, and a dramatic one under the FY19 request. There is also language there that emphasizes neutrino physics theory.

    The increase comes entirely in the form of the new category of “Quantum Information Science.” We’ll have to see what research programs are funded under that initiative as it is new.

    I was not at HEPAP, so don’t know what words went with the slide, so take this with a grain of salt.

  4. Peter Woit says:


    Thanks for pointing that out. The “Quantum Information Science” description includes “foundational concepts relating particle physics and QIS”, so presumably includes research previously funded from the theory account on the hot topic of getting spacetime out of quantum information science, as in the upcoming IAS summer school:
    A massive new funding stream available for this helps explain to me some of its popularity, which otherwise has always seemed to me kind of mystifying.

  5. Mildly tangential, but can one extract numbers for mathematics funding? Asking for a friend…

  6. Peter Woit says:

    David Roberts,
    As far as I can tell, numbers for the FY2018 NSF budget by directorate are not yet available. It is known that the overall NSF budget for research is up 5%. I don’t know of any reason math research should be disfavored compared to other topics, so a roughly 5% increase seems like a good guess.

  7. Blake Stacey says:

    In re the new “hot topic of getting spacetime out of quantum information science”, I’m vaguely concerned that I haven’t seen substantial push-back against it. Ideas that receive no challenges don’t become good ideas. The only critique I’ve noticed in print is the comment by Giddings (arXiv:1803.04973 and references therein) that defining entanglement presumes a decomposition into subsystems, which means you have to postulate a spacetime or maybe some kind of proto-spacetime structure first, before you can try to build a spacetime out of entanglement.

    At conferences, I’ve chatted about the “build spacetime from entanglement” notion with quantum-information people who weren’t blown away by the idea, but that’s just pub talk.

    So, I too am a bit mystified by the appeal, but “follow the money” might turn out to be good advice….

  8. Peter Woit says:

    Blake Stacey,
    My own general problem is that the toy models being studied look interesting and I can see why people do this (with funding just one reason), but I haven’t seen a plausible conjecture about an underlying theory that would give emergent spacetime and look like the real world.

    This is off-topic, will return to it some day in a more suitable context.

  9. Nielson says:

    For some context, according the Bureau of Labor Stats in 2016 there were 19900 physicists and astronomers in the USA. This is obviously a larger pool than those that split the 700+ million dollars for merely high energy physics, but even if we divvy it up as such, it still comes to 35000 dollars each (as an overestimate), roughly the amount of income tax you’d pay on the typical 100-120K salary.
    Comparatively, the entire US government spending (including all kinds of entitlement programs which were paid into at one point) is about 4 trillion, divided over say 325 million people, so an average of around 12000 dollars.

  10. Bernhard says:

    The 5% increase for the DOE is real, I saw it first at:

    The only negative side that I know of for a fact is that both the DOE and the NSF are disfavoring strongly small research groups to operate and favoring only the larger ones. Lone faculty investigators seeking for small grants to keep theirs groups alive are a thing of the past.

    Further, the NSF has some weird criteria on which topics are eligible or not for funding, instead of having a broader view and let scientific competence be the ultimate judge.

    (And of course, nothing of this is can be blamed on the government.)

  11. Marc says:

    It is always disturbing when someone says “I know for a fact…” and then says something that is false. “Lone faculty investigators seeking for small grants to keep their groups alive are a thing of the past”.

    If you go to NSF fastlane’s award search, and look at all proposals funded by the HE/Cosmo Theory program (Dienes as program officer) that started in the 2016-17 fiscal year, you will find 27 proposals (along with a few conferences) funded. 20 of them are lone faculty investigators.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    It may be relevant that Bernhard is an experimentalist.

  13. Dan Mittleman says:

    Many US researchers (anecdotally, the majority) in condensed matter physics and photonics, including both experimentalists and theorists, rely heavily on single-PI NSF grants for funding their groups. This may not be true in HEP, but HEP is not the only thing that qualifies as physics.

  14. Bernhard says:


    It’s good to know that what I have said cannot be applied as a general aspect of research funding of US HEP.

    My experience with US HEP funding is, as Peter pointed out, as an experimentalist. I have not, admittedly, investigated this deeply – but I have witnessed all groups with lone investigators with lone faculty members in my experiment to have their funding cut. I have discussed this with several colleagues and it’s not really much of a secret.

    About NSF, again, this is an experimentalist perspective – they fund only certain physics and detector activities/not all and that is irrespective of competence. It’s not a healthy state of things if you ask me.

    If things are brighter for theory and condensed matter I’m really glad.

  15. To build on Dan’s comment, a tension within NSF condensed matter, and more broadly the DIvision of Materials Research and big swaths of the engineering directorate, is trying to balance single investigator awards and center grants. If anything, the number of PIs supported through center grants has been falling in an attempt to avoid cannibalizing the single investigator awards further. More on topic, I’ve learned quite a bit recently about collaborations in astro and astro-particle (incl dark matter detection), and what has really surprised me is the heterogeneity in funding models.

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