UCSD Professor Takes on Congress in Fight for Funding

George Porter is an Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering at UCSD whose research funding was affected by federal budget cuts. Photo courtesy of George Porter.

After President Donald Trump proposed significant cuts to research funding in his proposal for the 2018 fiscal year, one UC San Diego researcher took matters into his own hands.  

George Porter, an Associate Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, had his research directly affected by the proposed cuts to the Department of Energy (DoE). Porter is one of six co-principal investigators for UCSD’s team competing for grants under the Department of Energy’s ENLITENED (ENergy Efficient Light-wave Integrated Technology Enabling Networks that Enhance Datacenters) program. In March, UCSD was named one of eight schools to receive a $3.8 million award from the $25 million program.

However, the program is funded by the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), a $291 million DoE agency that is slated to lose 100 percent of its funding under the Trump budget. Consequently, the announcement of the winning teams was kept secret, and a few weeks later, the program was placed on hold indefinitely.

The Trump budget, called the America First Budget Blueprint, includes a $6 billion (18 percent) cut to the National Institutes of Health, a $2.5 billion (31 percent) cut to the Environmental Protection Agency, and a $1.7 billion (5.6 percent) cut to the Department of Energy. These three agencies fund much of the essential research taking place across America and at UCSD. In 2015, the NIH awarded nearly $300 million in research funding to UCSD Health Sciences alone.

The proposed cuts sent shockwaves through the scientific community, leading researchers and advocates nationwide to organize a March for Science in April. In San Diego, an estimated 15,000 people participated in the march. 

The budget was due to be passed by mid-April. Congress averted a showdown and a potential shutdown by passing a $1 trillion continuing resolution to keep the government funded through October. Unfortunately for many researchers, the continuing resolution only brings uncertainty.

“In the short term, I think [the continuing resolution] is a really good thing, but I think there’s some real long-term concerns about scientific research, because the continuing resolution is really just an extension of policies from the past,” Porter said. “Now that Congress is going to be presumably implementing policies for the future, I think I’m—just like everyone—quite unsure about what those are going to mean for science and science funding.”

In response to the uncertainty, he has spent weeks lobbying aides to Darrell Issa, the Republican congressman representing UCSD and the rest of California’s 49th congressional district.

“The reason I reached out to him was twofold. One is because I think it’s incumbent on all scientists to be keeping our representatives apprised to the work that we do,” Porter told The Triton. “It’s funded by the federal government, and I think it’s important that we connect that loop…so that they understand where that money is going.”

Congressman Darrell Issa (left) pictured with UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla (right) at a reception on May 11 celebrating the University's Veteran Entrepreneur Initiative. Issa represents UCSD in California’s 49th congressional district.

Congressman Darrell Issa (left) pictured with UCSD Chancellor Pradeep Khosla (right) at a reception on May 11 celebrating the University’s Veteran Entrepreneur Initiative. Issa represents UCSD in California’s 49th congressional district.

Porter’s research deals with making data centers more energy-efficient. Data centers are massive facilities housing tens of thousands of computer servers in a single building. Collectively, they are responsible for 2 percent of the country’s total electricity consumption. The ENLITENED team is an interdisciplinary unit of computer scientists, physicists, and electrical engineers working with fiber optic and photonic technologies to reduce the power needs of network routers and switches.

“Second, as a constituent of this district, I wanted to raise this concern that there was this uncertainty about this grant money and to see if there was anything this congressman could do to support UCSD and support that research,” continued Porter. He added that Congressman Issa’s aides have been communicative and accessible, and that they took a legitimate interest in securing funding for the project.

According to MIT lecturer William Bonvillian, the cuts to ARPA-E are quite likely come October 2017, when the continuing resolution expires. He describes the upcoming budget battle as unpredictable and high-stakes. Luckily for Porter, he is not alone in fighting for ARPA-E’s future. UCSD is one of approximately 100 agencies and institutions that signed a letter to the Senate Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development expressing their support for ARPA-E and its vision.

For now, Porter’s project remains a waiting game, caught in the battle between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. He is still in communication with Issa’s office and continues to hope that Congress will eventually reach a resolution that guarantees ENLITENED its funding.

Porter reached out to several other local representatives, including Democrats Scott Peters and Susan Davis. However, he takes little interest in politics, stating that his involvement was brought about more by necessity than by fascination.

“The funding supports, in large part, student researchers. We have graduate students here, primarily masters and PhD students, and they’re really supported by these grants,” he said. “Who’s really hurt by these cuts are the next generation of scientists in a critical phase of their career.”

Rohan Grover is a contributing writer for The Triton.