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Academics fear Trump administration will chop science, arts, humanities funding

For music professor Greg Yasinitsky, one proposal by President Donald Trump’s administration has struck a sour chord.

Yasinitsky is a renowned saxaphonist who leads the music department at Washington State University and plays for the Spokane Symphony. He said he can’t comprehend why Trump is reportedly planning to eliminate the National Endowment of the Arts, which offers financial support to artists, symphonies, museums, theater houses and dance companies across the country.

With a $150 million annual budget, the NEA represents a tiny sliver of the multi-trillion-dollar federal budget. Yasinitsky, who received an NEA grant to record a jazz album in the 1980s, said that’s “comparable to a rounding error” and fears that Trump’s cost-cutting zeal could have a chilling effect on the fine arts.

“The arts have never supported themselves,” he said. “They’ve never been able to survive in the free market, and if they have to, they’ll die.”

According to a leaked budget proposal first reported by The Hill, the Trump administration also appears ready to eliminate the National Endowment for the Humanities. And uncertainty looms over the future of scientific research, as the administration this week barred the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture from awarding new research grants.

Those actions – coupled with media blackouts and the Trump administration’s refusal to acknowledge scientific conclusions about pollution and climate change – have left many academics scrambling to understand how the new presidency will impact publicly funded research.

EPA and USDA officials have given few answers about the implications of the recent actions.

At WSU Vancouver, Christine Portfors, associate vice chancellor of research and graduate education, tried to figure that out for herself on Tuesday afternoon. After combing through email exchanges between researchers and professors, she said it appears the university’s pending grant proposals won’t be “reviewed, let alone funded.”

“There’s a lot of confusion,” Portfors said. “It’s hard to get some straight answers.”

Federal grants are a big deal at WSU, which received nearly $138 million from more than a dozen federal agencies in 2015. The biggest contributor was the USDA, which operates veterinary science and agriculture facilities on the Pullman campus.

Businesses, nonprofits, foreign sponsors, other schools, and state and local agencies spent just over $66 million on WSU research in 2015 – less than half of what the federal government paid.

It remains to be seen whether Trump will eliminate the arts and humanities endowments, but Yasinitsky, the music professor, said he’s preparing for bad news.

“Republicans have been threatening to do this for years,” he said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if (Trump) goes forward with this. He doesn’t strike me as a terribly cultured guy.”

Projects funded by the endowments include a comprehensive history of the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in north-central Idaho; a WSU historian’s research into the use of missionaries as government spies during World War II; and a series of political lectures at WSU’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.

Cornell Clayton, a political science professor and director of the Foley Institute, said the endowments are also valuable resources for K-12 schools and communities in “middle America.”

“Talk to any rural librarian,” Clayton said. “These kinds of grants are what allow them to bring exhibits and other things to rural communities.”

Like the NEA, the NEH operates on just $150 million per year.

“In terms of the budget savings, it’s miniscule,” Clayton said. “It’s more about symbolism than having any impact on the budget.”

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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