Research advocates ramp up response to Trump's proposed NIH cuts

The Trump Administration's FY18 budget strike against the National Institutes of Health has mobilized both biomedical research advocates and members of Congress.

Susan Reiss 720

The Trump Administration's budget outline for fiscal year 2018—America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again—is frustratingly short on details. But its strike against the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has mobilized both biomedical research advocates and members of Congress.

At issue is a proposed $5.8 billion cut, which includes a major reorganization of the institutes and centers to focus resources "on the highest priority research and training activities." Also on the chopping block: the Fogarty International Center, with its $69 million annual budget, and nearly 50-year track record of encouraging collaboration between health research institutes in the U.S. and globally.

Expected impact
The cuts represent a 20% decrease in NIH’s budget from FY2016. According to The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), no administration has proposed such deep cuts since AAAS began tracking the process in 1976. Even the 2013 sequestration dropped NIH's budget just 5%. That year, roughly 700 fewer projects received funding—the math for Trump's cuts portends truly bleak results.

On March 16, 2017, when the short version of the budget debuted, Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney said the cuts were meant to eliminate "mission creep" since the institutes "do things that are outside their core functions."

Four days later, press secretary Sean Spicer stated, "There's this assumption in Washington that if you don't spend more on a subject that you're not caring as much. When you look at some of the agencies and departments and programs that we've seen, in many cases they're not meeting their mission. And I think there are cost savings that can be achieved so that you can focus the dollars that are being allocated towards a more effective use of the mission at hand."

Fury roiling
In response, advocates of biomedical research are mobilizing to fight the proposal. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) calls the plan "a travesty" and notes that reducing the budget to $25.9 billion would sink the agency to pre-2003 levels.

The fury roiling within the scientific community has spawned at least one new advocacy group. About a week after release of the FY2018 budget outline, JPA Health Communications rallied stakeholders to form "The Coalition to Save NIH Funding," which reports a goal to "educate lawmakers and American citizens about the critical importance of investing in biomedical research."

On Capitol Hill, members of Congress appear irritated that their hard work to pass the 21st Century Cures Act, which included NIH increases, aren't supported by the White House. From House Speaker Paul Ryan to Senate Appropriations Chair Thad Cochran (R-MS), members have expressed disappointment. Pat Leahy (D-VT), ranking member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said, "Scientists don't hit 'pause' on studies and continue the research when federal funding resumes. The ups and downs of the budget are particularly harmful in the medical research field."

Congress won't likely agree to the proposed FY2018 reductions this year, or to further reduce NIH's 2017 budget, as they negotiate spending over the next month to avert a government shutdown. During a recent hearing, Roy Blunt (R-MO), chair of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NIH, noted, "Our full committee is really committed to [NIH] being one of our priorities, which is why we are working so hard to see if we can add that annual $2 billion sometime between now and the end of April."

More in BioOptics World View