Scientists hear mixed messages on political support for biomedical research and the NIH

The White House’s budget rollout last week sent shockwaves through the scientific community broadly and National Institutes of Health supporters specifically.  President Donald Trump, in his “skinny budget” release, called for a $5.8 billion cut to the NIH’s budget, 19 percent of fiscal year 2016 appropriations for the agency.  The cut came as a surprise because the agency historically has enjoyed bipartisan support.

The president’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, made Trump’s intentions clear at a press conference last week.  “This is a hard power budget,” Mulvaney said.  To the president, “hard power” clearly means increases in defense spending.  In fact, the president’s budget proposal increases defense spending by $54 billion by reducing nondefense discretionary spending.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer and Mulvaney, both of whom tried to explain Trump’s budget, have been questioned on more than one occasion about the president’s support for the NIH.

Spicer’s responses to those inquiries have been, to date, confusing.

When asked how Trump can claim to support research, while knowing that the private sector will not supplement funding gaps, and still propose cutting funding, Spicer responded:

There’s this assumption in Washington, Jonathan, that if you get less money it’s a cut.  And I think that the reality is that in a lot of these there’s efficiencies, duplicity, ways to spend money better.  And I think if you’re wasting a lot of money, that’s not a true dollar spent.  And I think when you look at the way that Director Mulvaney and the president approached this budget, it was can we ask — can we get more with the same dollar, can we find duplicity, can we find efficiencies, can we combine facilities in some cases at NIH to enhance a better experience whereby we actually have an outcome that’s reduced savings.”

When Mulvaney was asked about the message the president was sending by eliminating so much science spending, he responded:

“On science, we’re going to function — we’re going to focus on the core function.  There’s reductions, for example, I think, in the NIH — the National Institutes of Health.  Why?  Because we think there’s been mission creep, we think they do things that are outside their core functions.  We think there’s tremendous opportunity for savings.  We recommend, for example, that a couple of facilities be combined; there would be cost savings from that.”

Spicer this week was asked again about NIH cuts, and he had this to say:

“Look, we’ve discussed the NIH in particular.  I think that 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.”

While the White House has sent mixed messages while trying to explain how the loss of $5.8 billion shouldn’t be seen as a lack of support from the president, the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue did not mince mix words.  Congress’ rebuttal of the president’s budget request – specifically the cut to the NIH – has been bipartisan and clear.

  • Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., told Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace: “I will say that NIH is something that’s particularly popular in Congress.  We just passed the Cures Act just this last December to increase spending in the NIH, we really think we’re kind of getting close to some breakthrough discoveries on cancer and other diseases.  So, that is something that I think and Congress you’ll see probably some changes.”
  • House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., told constituents on a conference call, in response to Mulvaney’s “mission creep” statement: “That’s ridiculous. I think that Mulvaney, quite honestly — and he’s not one of my favorite people, I never worked with him when he was in Congress — he has no idea of the facts” regarding NIH.
  • S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds the NIH told MSNBC: “I don’t favor cutting NIH or the Centers for Disease Control (and Prevention). You’re much more likely to die in a pandemic than a terrorist attack, and so that’s part of the defense of the country as well.”
  • S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who chairs the Senate’s appropriations committee funding NIH told reporters: “There are many concerns with nondefense discretionary cuts.”
  • S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., told ABC News: “I am hopeful that Congress rejects this budget and works in a bipartisan fashion to restore the funding levels for the NIH as we have done in the past.

Over the next few weeks, Congress has to complete the fiscal 2017 budget process and will begin the FY18 appropriations process.  These events will cut through the soundbites and provide the community with a clear sense of whether Washington’s support for biomedical research continues.

Note:  If you’re wondering why we have made no statements regarding National Science Foundation funding, it’s because the president’s budget blueprint offered no insights into funding strategies for NSF in the next fiscal year.  We expect those details to be released later this spring with the full details of the president’s budget.  We expect cuts. 

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