You Should Be Mad As Hell That Trump Wants to Cut Research Grants

If you're ever going to be sick or old, this affects you.
March 30, 2017, 8:18pm
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When President Trump submitted his 2018 budget proposal earlier this month, it included $2.6 billion for his goddamn wall and increased defense spending by $54 billion, but also proposed drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the National Institutes of Health. Under his plan, the NIH's budget would face a 20 percent cut, amounting to $5.8 billion, starting in fiscal year 2018. But it looks like he wants to cut it sooner: On Tuesday, the White House proposed cutting $1.23 billion from the NIH's 2017 budget, much of which would come from research grants. The 2017 budget would also nix $350 million worth of research grants at the National Science Foundation for biology, engineering, and information science.


There's a chance that the cuts to health and science agencies won't be implemented as they're unpopular with some lawmakers (as are other non-defense cuts, like Meals on Wheels), but even suggesting these kinds of reductions in a budget proposal is short-sighted. That's because the NIH is the world's largest single funder of life sciences research and provides funding for a third of biomedical research and development in the US. Without the NIH, there will be less research and fewer treatments developed for health problems.

A new paper underscores just how important the NIH is for our health. A team from Harvard Business School, the MIT Sloan School of Management, Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) looked at patents filed for prescription drugs, medical devices and other medical innovations, and compared the patents to 365,380 research grants awarded by the NIH over a 27-year period from 1980 to 2007.

They found that 8.4 percent or 30,829 of NIH grants led directly to a patent and that 31 percent or 112,408 of NIH grants produced research that was cited in a private-sector patent. The paper will be published tomorrow in the journal Science.

"Our article, 'The Applied Value of Public Investments in Biomedical Research,' shows that publicly-funded research creates knowledge that links to private companies' efforts to develop drugs, medical devices, and other patented biomedical products," Harvard assistant professor Danielle Li said in a release.


Co-author Pierre Azoulay, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management, added, "The impact on the private sector is a lot more important in magnitude than what we might have thought before…grants produce papers, and papers are cited by patents used by pharmaceutical firms. It's hard to think of an innovation [in biomedicine] that doesn't have a patent."

Translation: if you or someone you know takes a prescription drugs or uses a device like an insulin pump or has a disease or condition that doctors don't know how to treat or you're concerned that we don't yet have a vaccine for the ZIka virus, you should be pissed as hell that the Trump administration is trying to cut research grants. As Michael White, a geneticist at the University of Washington in St. Louis, wrote in Pacific Standard, these cuts could shut down labs as researchers wouldn't be able to pay the salaries of research associates and other lab employees.

White writes:

Even scientists who already have multi-year grants that might outlast the Trump administration would be affected, because the NIH would also have to reduce its funds for existing grants as well. For scientists, this would mean scaling back their work, laying off lab members, and, as one neuroscientist put it, "not testing bold new ideas, only 'safe' ones." It would also mean that, rather than actually doing science, researchers would spend even more time writing proposals, hoping that one gets funded.

Trump's proposed NIH cuts would not only have an indiscriminate effect on individual scientists; they would also affect progress on a broad range of biomedical science topics, including basic research on laboratory animals, cancer genetics, clinical trials for neuromuscular diseases, and Zika.

That's not something that's easy to fix should the budget rebound next year, or in 2019, because some scientists might leave the field altogether in search of gainful employment, especially younger ones. Having fewer scientists helps no one, and could make us all sicker.

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