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April 11, 2017

Perspective: NIH Budget Cuts

  • Executive
  • Genetics/Genomics
  • Nanotechnology
  • Neuroscience
  • Robotics/AI

(Daniel Feingold, Duke University) – The Trump budget proposal for 2018 includes a plan to cut the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget by $5.8 billion, an 18-percent decrease in funding from the $34.1 billion allotted for 2017. The proposal has been criticized from both sides of the aisle. The NIH budget is usually a non-controversial area because of the broad support that biomedical research receives, but this consensus appears to be changing with the new administration. 

On top of the proposed budget cuts for 2018, the president is seeking to slash the NIH budget for the remainder of 2017 by $1.2 billion. This is possible because Congress never approved a full budget for 2017, so when the current deadline occurs in late April Congress can adjust appropriations for the rest of the fiscal year as it sees fit. Tom Price, the head of the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees NIH, defended the proposed budget cuts by citing indirect costs. Indirect, or “facilities and administrative (F&A),” costs, reflect a portion of an allotted research grant budget that covers expenditures necessary to support, for example, electricity, maintenance, equipment, grant administration personnel, and a multitude of other operating costs, which allow a lab to function.  Universities independently negotiate indirect cost rates with the government, allowing for the varying costs of doing business in different regions; historically, rates have ranged from twenty percent to eighty-five percent. Running a lab is expensive, and not just because reagents aren’t cheap. Indirect monies are necessary to ensure that university labs can efficiently run experiments using well-maintained equipment and facilities.  Using F&A expenses as a scapegoat for cutting the NIH budget will have a direct effect on research output because scientists will lose necessary support and access to new and functional equipment.

For the past decade, funding for the NIH has been relatively flat; accounting for inflation, the budget has actually been shrinking, in real terms.  An exception was 2016 when a $2 billion-dollar bump was approved for 2017. The increase was especially surprising because the Republican-controlled Senate appropriated more money to the NIH than President Obama had requested, further indicating that scientific research—at least non-climate associated research—garners bipartisan support.

Although it is unlikely that Trump’s proposed cuts will remain in the final budget, the fact that Trump even proposed them sets a dangerous precedent.  Scientists across the country, especially young ones, are already facing a competitive and difficult professional landscape.  To run a laboratory, a scientist needs grants.  Most grant money for the biomedical sciences comes from the NIH, with additional funding coming from the National Science Foundation, private industry, non-profits and the Department of Defense.  An R01 grant—the most common grant awarded by the NIH—provides a specified amount of money (usually $250,000) over a five-year period. If a grant is funded in 2017, the $250,000 would be dispensed over five years, and count against the 2017 budget.  So, a decrease in NIH funding will have an immediate effect on the number of grants that can be funded for 2018. 

The current acceptance rate for a new R01 is already just 14.5 percent. An 18-percent cut to the budget would thus lead to a tangible decline in the funded number of grants and would reduce the number of grants that could be renewed.  This would hurt research in the short-term, by forcing scientists to shut down their labs for lack of funding, and in the long-term because scientists who get pushed out of research will no longer be working on the scientific questions to which they have dedicated their careers.  Additionally, there would be a decline in training opportunities for graduate students and post-docs whose work is contingent upon positions being available in federally funded labs.  The decline in graduate student and post-doc positions would lead to a reduction in overall scientific output and would result in less diversity of scientific disciplines. Targeted disease research for common diseases—such as that aimed at cancer and Alzheimer’s research—would see less of an effect from broad funding reductions than would research done in less popular fields.  The 2013 budget sequestration is a good example of what can happen when a significant budget cut occurs.  In response to sequestration, the NIH had to cut funding by five percent, which was applied evenly across all programs and resulted in approximately 630 fewer competitive research grants being awarded. But a five-percent cut to a field that is already receiving little funding will have a larger effect on that field than a five-percent cut to funding for research on a disease that receives substantial funding and attention.

There is a ‘lean government’ argument to be made for only funding research into diseases that have significant effects on the health of Americans, but that argument misunderstands how science works.  For science to work effectively, there need to be a critical mass of scientists working in the same field who can review, critique, and build on each other’s work. Budget cuts would limit the number of grants awarded to smaller fields, thereby increasing the possibility that mistakes would be missed and bad data would be published.  Politicians also regularly criticize ‘useless’ science.  This ‘useless’ science is usually research done on non-human species; however, there are many examples of seemingly useless science having a profound effect on our understanding of the world.

Without the aplysia—an archaic sea slug—our understanding of neuroscience, specifically memory, would be nowhere near where it is today.  Green fluorescent protein—one of the most important tools in neuroscience that has provided vast insight into the mechanisms of neurological disease—was discovered through studying the fluorescent properties of jellyfish, and earned its discoverer a Nobel prize.  These are only two of many examples of non-human research that broadened our knowledge.  If NIH budget reductions become common it could lead to an even faster move towards exclusively funding targeted disease research, depriving us of the opportunity to make discoveries that could profoundly affect how we understand ourselves, our health, and the world.