France Córdova, director of the National Science Foundation.

Mark F.Jones/cjvisions.com

Playing no Trump at AAAS policy forum

The relationship between U.S. scientists and the Trump administration hit a new low today after organizers of a major annual science policy conference were unable to find anyone willing to discuss the president’s priorities.

For weeks, the 42nd annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy put on by AAAS (which publishes ScienceInsider) listed a 50-minute talk on “science and technology priorities of the new administration” in its online program. Past administrations have always made someone available to discuss its approach to research or innovation. But over the weekend that slot was quietly removed and the schedule reshuffled.

The show went on. But there was nary a word spoken today in defense of the president’s recently released budget blueprint that would slash research spending both this year and in 2018. Instead, AAAS CEO Rush Holt, a former Democratic congressman from New Jersey, reminded the assembled policy wonks that it is Congress, not the president, that has the final word on annual spending. And National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins, a temporary holdover from the Obama administration, spoke optimistically of a pending appropriations bill that could give NIH as much as a $2 billion boost this year.

It’s never easy to get someone from a new administration to speak at the policy forum, although for several years it has been held just a few blocks from the White House in downtown Washington, D.C. But in the end AAAS has always succeeded—until this year. “We tried really hard,” Holt explained. His brief apology spoke volumes about the apparent indifference, if not hostility, of the 45th president toward the health of the U.S. research establishment.

The president’s science adviser is usually the first choice of AAAS organizers. But nobody has been nominated for the position, much less confirmed by the Senate and in office. In 2001, the last time such a vacancy existed when the forum was held, then-President George W. Bush dispatched his top economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey. His words—an attack on former President Bill Clinton’s climate and energy policies and the 1992 Kyoto accord—may not have been welcome. But he had raised the flag, and the audience at least appreciated his candor. By the next year, science adviser John Marburger was on board and delivered the first of several speeches on the Bush administration’s support for research.

The energy secretary has been another frequent forum speaker. It was a natural fit for the three previous secretaries, all of whom held science Ph.D.s and former academic posts. (Steven Chu, Obama’s first energy secretary, also owned a Nobel Prize in Physics.) Alas, Trump’s energy secretary, former Texas Governor Rick Perry, was booked solid, and the department was not able to work things out with anybody else.

Although AAAS organizers couldn’t find anyone in Trump’s cabinet, the cupboard was not entirely bare. In addition to Collins, there was a talk by France Córdova, who Obama appointed as the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) and who is halfway through a 6-year term.

Collins bullish on NIH

“Yes, I am still the NIH director,” joked Collins, who was head of NIH’s genome institute for 15 years before Obama chose him in 2009 to run the entire $32 billion agency. “I had not expected to be speaking in symposia like this with that title under my name.”

NIH may be facing the biggest budget cut in anyone’s memory, but Collins sought to reassure the biomedical research community that Trump’s proposed 18% cut in 2018 may never come to pass. He pointed to the new 21st Century Cures Act, which gives NIH $4.8 billion over the next 10 years for specific research projects, as a sign of strong congressional support for NIH.

Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health.

Mark F.Jones/cjvisions.com

“I think we have a lot of reason to be optimistic that the case here is sufficiently compelling, the Cures bill has passed, the appropriators are determined that they’re going to make this a priority,” he said. “We shouldn’t get too concerned at the moment about the need to start shrinking the enterprise when the enterprise is so compelling.”

He said NIH has “lots of things on our plate” and described several initiatives, including newly public plans to join forces with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and other major funders on a human cell atlas and an NIH-led effort to use the CRISPR gene-editing tool to treat sickle cell disease. One Cures-funded project, the All of Us genetics and health study, expects to begin enrolling 1 million participants in the fall.

Asked how the Cures projects already underway could be affected by a budget cut, Collins said he is “very heartened by … the strong bipartisan support” for Cures, which also includes funding for the cancer moonshot and the Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies brain-mapping initiative. And although Cures doesn’t fund other areas of research, he added that NIH doesn’t yet know its 2017 budget and that the chairs of House of Representatives and Senate spending panels have said they “would actually provide a bit of an uptick for biomedical research” in a final spending bill. The House panel has approved a $1.25 billion increase for NIH, and a Senate bill would give the agency $2 billion more.

Talking with reporters after his speech, Collins said he has not met with Trump since he took office or had much “conversation” with White House staff about the NIH budget. And he acknowledged that NIH is starting to look at how it would abolish the Fogarty International Center, as the Trump 2018 budget proposes. “We may not be able to continue to justify everything that Fogarty does if there’s a strong sense, and the Congress has to weigh in here, that this is not something that should be a focus,” Collins said.

Asked whether the proposed cuts have made him consider leaving, Collins turned philosophical. “I'm a public servant,” said Collins, who joined NIH in 1993 from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “I am not a political person. I’ve never registered with any political party. My goal is to try to support something that I care about deeply, that I think has great value to America, and that is medical research. If I have a chance to serve that purpose in this administration and I’m asked to do so, then I will do my best.”

Córdova holds firm on NSF

Given her fixed tenure, Córdova had no need to make jokes about job security. Instead, she delivered a straightforward presentation of how NSF’s entire $7.5 billion portfolio fits nicely into 10 “big ideas”—the interface of humans and technology, navigating the new Arctic, and harnessing the big data frontier, for example—that she hopes the agency will pursue over the next decade.

There’s nothing controversial about those ideas. But NSF does face some rough seas in the U.S. House of Representatives, which is working on legislation to set new policy guidelines for the agency. In particular, the chairman of the House science committee, Representative Lamar Smith (R–TX), has proposed allocating funding for each of NSF’s six research directorates in a way that would favor four—biology, math and physical sciences, engineering, and computing—and curtail support for the geosciences and the social and behavioral sciences.

Smith says that tilt would ensure that NSF keeps its promise to support research “in the national interest.” And he has said repeatedly that NSF embraces his approach. But in response to a reporter’s question, Córdova took issue with Smith’s assertion.

“I think we made it very clear in the last cycle of budget hearings that we support all of the directorates together at the level at which they are currently funded,” Córdova said. “Indeed, they are funded very leanly, and I think those investments deserve to be plussed up in order for us to achieve our vision.”

The uncertain outcomes from research require broad support across all disciplines, she continued. “We have no idea where the next idea will come from, and history shows that it catches us by surprise,” Córdova explained. “So we think that only by supporting all of the science we do can we invest in the potential discoveries and the people who make them. And we have held firm to that view over time.”