Proposed NIH Cuts Stun and Anger

Advocates for science hope Congress will block proposals.

March 20, 2017
 
NIH

The White House budget proposal released last week would have devastating effects on science and technology in the United States as well as the education of the next generation of researchers, say organizations representing scientists and research institutions.

The budget document from the Trump administration -- a broad outline of the full budget due later this spring -- calls for reducing the funding of the National Institutes of Health by $5.8 billion, or nearly 20 percent. And it calls for eliminating or slashing spending on other research programs at many other federal agencies. No specific numbers were released for the National Science Foundation.

Science advocates hope Congress will reject the proposals to scale back the NIH, an agency whose work typically attracts bipartisan support. Few were expecting a great budget year for the NIH or other science agencies. But the size of the proposed cut stunned and angered many.

"When we saw the number, we were gobsmacked," said Jennifer Zeitzer, director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. "That is a devastating cut to NIH."

Such a reduction in federal funding would be counter to recent appropriations trends for the agency, which received a $2 billion boost in 2015.

It would also follow a serious blow dealt to the agency from 2013 sequestration cuts. At that time, the NIH budget was cut by 5 percent, a fraction of what's being proposed by the Trump administration but enough to seriously impact grant awards made by the agency. Complicating any plans to absorb potential budget cuts is the fact that NIH awards multiyear grants, meaning a major budget cut would severely limit the institutes' ability to make new grants. Sequestration cuts led NIH to issue 700 fewer competitive research grants in fiscal year 2013.

Eighty percent of the agency's funding goes to universities and medical centers throughout the country, said Joanne Carney, director of government relations at the American Association for the Advancement of Science -- most of that through grant awards. Such reductions would directly affect whether undergraduate and graduate students in STEM fields at U.S. institutions persist in those careers, she said.

"When you see such drastic reductions in federal spending, it discourages students from completing or pursuing STEM degrees," Carney said. "Those who have already completed their Ph.D.s and are trying to get their first research grants may look overseas. Other countries are going to look more desirable."

The Trump budget would include "a major reorganization of NIH's institutes and centers to help focus resources on the highest-priority research and training activities," according to the blueprint released last week. That reorganization would include eliminating entirely the $70 million Fogarty International Center, which focuses on global health by supporting research on the topic and by training researchers to work in developing countries. Researchers say that work is important because many of the serious health threats faced in the United States originate elsewhere. Advocates say there's no way a funding cut as large as the one proposed in the Trump blueprint couldn't be felt across the rest of NIH.

Cuts to federal research programs in the White House budget blueprint went well beyond the NIH. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research office saw a proposed cut of more than 50 percent; the Department of Energy's Office of Science would be cut by 17 percent; and the Environmental Protection Agency's R&D office would see a 48 percent cut.

Those offices make grant awards or even operate research facilities on the campuses of research universities.

Even before the dramatic proposals in the White House budget document, advocates for university-based research said long-term trends in federal appropriations had endangered the role of the U.S. In a March 10 letter, Association of American Universities President Mary Sue Coleman called on President Trump and Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate to use the budget process to "revitalize the federal government's scientific research and higher education investment strategy."

"By placing much of the focus of deficit reduction on nondefense discretionary spending, the federal government has hampered its research and higher education investments that foster innovation and create new jobs, improve health, strengthen national security and enhance the knowledge and skills of the U.S. work force," Coleman wrote. "If these trends continue, the U.S. risks creating an innovation deficit and losing its status as the global innovation leader."

Some Possible Cuts Unclear

While advocates saw alarming proposed cuts to science funding, the prospects of social science research in the full Trump budget are not clear. The document did not include specific numbers for the National Science Foundation, which is a key supporter of research in the physical sciences, computer science and the social sciences. The NSF is among "other agencies" noted in the budget document that, together, face a cut of 9.8 percent, said Wendy Naus, the executive director of the Consortium of Social Science Associations.

"We don't know if that's going to be taken from specific directorates or across the board," Naus said. In the past, Republicans in Congress have been highly critical of spending on social science research.

While funding for the Census Bureau would receive a rare bump -- 7 percent -- in the Trump budget, other statistical agencies located across the federal government would be negatively impacted, Naus said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture's statistical capabilities, for example, would be reduced while the administration maintains "core departmental analytical functions, such as the funding necessary to complete the Census of Agriculture," the document states.

"By undermining these surveys, you're undermining the quality and credibility of the data," Naus said.

More immediate are concerns over areas like the Department of Energy's Office of Science, which would lose $900 million of its $5 billion budget. The Office of Science supports research at 300 universities as well as national labs.

Research advocates say they are encouraged by the mixed reviews or even outright criticism of the budget proposal from the president's own party. Republican Hal Rogers, the former chairman of the House appropriations committee, said after the budget document's release last week that many of the cuts outlined were "draconian, careless and counterproductive." And Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, last week identified national laboratories supported by the Energy Department and the National Institutes of Health as two of his priorities as a member of the appropriations committee.

Congress has until the end of April, when the continuing resolution ends, to complete a deal on a fiscal 2017 appropriations bill before it passes a 2018 budget. That gives science organizations multiple opportunities to make clear why the work of research is so important.

"The only reason we're not in bed under the covers today is because getting the proposal through Congress is going to be, I think, extremely difficult, particularly on the NIH cut," Zeitzer said.

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