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Fiscal Year 2019 Federal Budget Exceeds Expectations

President Donald Trump surprised Washington on March 23 when he announced that he had approved a $1.3 trillion spending bill that broadly defies his wishes to reshape it. In fact, the budget mimics many of the budget requests of his Democratic predecessor, former president Barack Obama, rather than his own.

Pell Grants, a priority of the Obama administration, saw an increase in the maximum level of funding one can receive, from $5,920 to $6,095, as reported by The Chronicle of Higher Education. While this only represents a 3 percent increase, it will help offset the expiration of an annual inflation adjustment in the grants, said James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access and Success, in a written statement. Nationwide, approximately 7 million students take advantage of Pell Grants, which go to students whose families earn less than $50,000 per year.

Students will also benefit from a $107 million increase in funding to the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant budget, according to The Washington Post. The program, which now has an annual budget of $840 million, provides up to $4,000 each to 1.6 million low-income students.

Another notable aspect of the budget was that lawmakers rejected the slew of cuts Trump had proposed for federal agencies that fund research at Boston College, and this bodes well for faculty on campus.

In the past few years, cuts to federal research funding have become more prevalent, Sharon Comvalius-Goddard, director of BC’s Office of Sponsored Programs, told The Heights earlier this year. Funding actions by federal sponsors at BC decreased from $35.8 million in fiscal year 2016 to $30.9 million in 2017, while funding actions by non-federal sponsors increased from $20.4 million in fiscal year 2016 to $23.4 million in 2017. BC has responded to the reality of lower funding levels by diversifying its grant sources.

If federal agencies are continually funded at a higher level like they were in this year’s budget, however, faculty may be able to revert to back to relying on federal grants.

A major source of federal funding at BC is the National Institutes of Health (NIH). According to the Office for Sponsored Programs’ fiscal year 2017 Annual Report, the NIH distributed over $3 million for new projects and funded over $17 million total in research. Under the 2019 budget, funding for the NIH will rise from $34.1 billion to $37 billion.

“[The] increase to NIH would definitely bode well for BC as NIH is our major federal sponsor,” Comvalius-Goddard said in an email. “That increase means increased funding opportunities from NIH which translates to more awards for BC down the road.”

In his first White House budget, Trump proposed cutting the NIH’s budget by roughly $6 billion, which “would have been a devastating blow after years of stagnant funding,” as reported by Vox.

Faculty can also benefit from a slight funding increase to $78 billion for the Department of Health and Human Services. This is nearly identical to the $77.9 billion that Obama sought and almost 20 percent more than the amount Trump called for, as The Atlantic explained.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) also got a boost, gaining about $300 million to reach $7.8 billion in total funding. In his proposed budget, Trump at first called for the NSF budget to be slashed 30 percent to $5.27 billion, but later for it to be restored it to its fiscal 2018 level, before Congress called to increase the funding.

NSF proposals for funding at BC came in at over $38 million in fiscal 2017, and funding actions at almost $4 million. Ethan Baxter, chairperson of BC’s earth and environmental sciences department, told The Heights in March that most funding for the department comes from the NSF. This funding will prove helpful if other agencies that fund scientific research, like the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or the Environmental Protection Agency receive cuts in funding, all of which have supported research at the University.

Aside from funding for scientific research at BC, faculty in the humanities and arts can take a breather thanks to a higher level of funding for the National Endowments for the Arts (NEA) and Humanities (NEH), both of which rose to about $153 million. In his proposed budget, Trump said that the agencies would receive significant cuts (down to $29 million for the NEA and $42 million for the NEH) and “begin” shutting down in 2019, as reported by the Associated Press.

Requesting grants from these agencies is commonplace at BC, and faculty have warned The Heights of the negative consequences that cutting their funding could have time and time again.

In addition, the Department of Education is to receive a $2.6 billion boost, which could benefit BC faculty and was another priority of the Obama era. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos had sought to cut Education Department funding by $9 billion, seeking to eliminate money for after-school programs for needy youth and a grant program that helps low-income students go to college, as The Washington Post reported. In fiscal 2017, funding proposals for the Department of Education came in at about $9.6 billion, and funding actions at around $1.8 million.

Regardless of the positive outcomes of the omnibus spending bill, student aid and federal funds aren’t necessarily heading in a positive direction in the years to come. Soon after Trump signed off on the budget, he took to Twitter to express that he intended to never sign off on another bill like this one, and then called upon Congress to give him a line-item veto for all government spending bills.

“There is always the potential for budget cuts in the future,” Comvalius-Goddard said. “The federal budget is driven by the priorities of those in office at the time and for that reason it can change in drastic or subtle ways from year to year. Those who work in Research Administration are always sensitive to which way the pendulum swings when it comes to research funding.”

Featured Image by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor

April 4, 2018