President Donald Trump meets with U.S. biomedical research leaders in the Oval Office on 8 May.

Shealah Craighead/White House

Biotech execs, academic leaders make case for NIH funding at White House meeting

Could the Trump administration be changing its mind about slashing funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH)? Scientific leaders were optimistic yesterday after meeting for 2 hours at the White House with several biotech executives to discuss the “ecosystem” in which federally funded basic research leads to discoveries that companies turn into treatments.

The closed meeting, described 2 weeks ago by Bloomberg News as a “summit,” took place on 8 May in a room in the White House residence. Twenty-seven people attended, including NIH Director Francis Collins, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, Food and Drug Administration Acting Commissioner Stephen Ostroff, and nine White House officials including President Donald Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump. About a dozen outside speakers ranged from Stanford University’s president and the CEOs of the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Medicine to four CEOs from biotech companies including Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

The meeting took place against the backdrop of White House plans for massive cuts to NIH that lawmakers in Congress have so far rebuffed. After the president proposed cutting NIH by about $1 billion in 2017, Congress instead gave the agency a $2 billion raise, to $34 billion, in a bill Trump signed last Friday. However, Trump’s proposed “skinny budget” for the 2018 fiscal year that begins 1 October would trim $5.8 billion from NIH’s budget.

Yesterday’s gathering began with remarks by Vice President Mike Pence and a few brief presentations in which NIH and other leaders discussed milestones such as the Human Genome Project and falling rates of heart disease and HIV, and presented data on how NIH research contributes to the U.S. economy. Then the attendees had a discussion.

Biotech leaders explained why private investment can’t substitute for NIH’s support for basic research at academic institutions. NIH and academic leaders described the crushing one in five odds of winning an NIH grant that early-career investigators are facing after years of flat NIH funding. Another concern was that Trump immigration policies are making it more difficult to recruit foreign talent. Heart disease researcher Helen Hobbs of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas told the group that her Chinese postdocs are now accepting job offers in China instead of staying in the United States.

White House officials were attentive, including Ivanka Trump, who asked a lot of questions, including on the role of women in biomedical research and K–12 science education, Collins says. “She was totally engaged,” he told reporters later. At the end, the group visited the Oval Office for a photo with President Trump.

“By far the overwhelming message was the critical role of NIH in supporting fundamental biomedical research that has laid the foundation” for new diagnostics and therapeutics, says human geneticist Rick Lifton, president of The Rockefeller University in New York City. “I certainly came away with the understanding that we were carefully listened to,” he adds. “The message in the room was loud and clear: We need the NIH! And we need it now more than ever,” says Cori Bargmann, president of science for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in Palo Alto, California, in a Facebook post.

The meeting was organized by Bill Ford, CEO of General Atlantic, a global investment firm, who has ties to Reed Cordish, Trump’s assistant for intragovernmental and technology initiatives, Collins said. Ford, who sits on the boards of The Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, thought it would be a “good idea” to have experts describe “the whole ecosystem” that biomedical innovation depends on, Collins said.

Participants did not discuss the proposed $5.8 billion NIH budget cut in 2018—it was one of several “elephants in the room,” including drug pricing, Collins said. The meeting did touch on Price’s proposal to make that cut by slashing indirect costs, the overhead payments for research grants that NIH now disburses to grantee universities. But “it was not the main focus,” Collins says. (One attendee said that academic leaders explained how indirect cost payments don’t come close to covering the full cost of NIH-funded research.)

The meeting “was an important step in laying out bold plans to fortify America's role as the global leader in biomedicine," Collins said in a statement afterward. He told reporters he thinks there will be more such meetings. Are NIH’s budget prospects looking better? “I think time will tell,” Collins said.