National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins in 2013.

Stephen Voss/Redux

Lawmakers decry Trump plan to slash NIH 2018 budget

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle in the U.S. House of Representatives today voiced their displeasure with the Trump administration’s proposed $5.8 billion cut next year to the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. But they avoided asking NIH Director Francis Collins for his thoughts on the topic, perhaps knowing that it would put him in a very uncomfortable spot.

During a hearing on "advances in biomedical research", Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), who chairs the House appropriations panel that oversees NIH’s budget, said he was “very proud” of a $2 billion increase, to $34.1 billion, that Congress approved for NIH in 2017. That action overrode President Donald Trump’s request for a $1 billion cut. Cole added that he was “disappointed” with Trump’s 2018 proposal in his “skinny budget” released in March to cut NIH by 18%. That would “stall progress” and “potentially discourage promising young scientists” from pursuing biomedical research, Cole said.

Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D–CT) and Nita Lowey (D–NY) said the president actually wants to cut NIH’s next budget by $8 billion, using as a baseline the amount that NIH had been appropriated for 2017 when the skinny budget was issued. That 24% drop would mean 5000 to 8000 fewer grants. Such a decline would “decimate biomedical research and the economy” by eliminating 90,000 jobs, said Lowey, citing a new analysis by United for Medical Research, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C.

Collins made no mention of the president’s 2018 budget request, which will officially be released next week, in his oral testimony. Appearing alongside the heads of five of NIH’s 27 institutes and centers, Collins instead offered examples of how NIH research has led to new drugs for cystic fibrosis and cancer treatments that help the immune system fight tumors.

“You don’t have to comment on the budget, but we have to comment,” DeLauro observed at one point. The closest any lawmaker came to asking Collins for his thoughts on the White House’s plans for NIH was when Lowey asked whether private investment could make up for the cuts. In response, Collins described a White House meeting last week where biotech CEOs and academic scientists explained how companies relied on NIH-funded basic research. The biotech leaders “were quite clear … that their stockholders would not necessarily appreciate their putting money into things that are not directly connected to a product,” Collins said.

DeLauro asked NIH officials to explain the role of the Fogarty International Center, which the Trump proposal would eliminate. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Bethesda, reeled off examples of how Fogarty has trained health experts in Africa and South America to fight diseases such as HIV and Zika that are threats to the United States. “Even though they [the people being trained] are foreigners, they are helping us to be protected from disease,” Fauci said.

Legislators also asked about the payments that NIH makes to universities to cover the overhead costs of NIH-funded research. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price has suggested that eliminating these so-called indirect cost payments could shrink NIH’s budget by $5.8 billion without reducing the level of research funded. At the hearing, Representative Andy Harris (R–MD), who shares that view, asked why NIH pays out about 30% per grant in indirect costs whereas many foundations pay only 10%.

Collins defended the payments, noting that universities are able to accept grants from funders that reimburse at a much lower rate only because they represent a small portion of overall research funding. Even NIH’s rate doesn’t cover the full costs of supporting NIH-funded research, Collins added. If the payments matched what foundations paid, he said, some universities, particularly state schools, would not be able to continue hosting NIH-funded research.

Another question concerned a new NIH policy to boost the fortunes of young scientists by capping the number of grants held by an individual investigator. Collins said that this Grant Support Index, which in effect would limit an individual to three bread-and-butter grants, is a topic of “intense conversations” at NIH and in the community. “We will need to have an exceptions process” to avoid doing harm to exceptionally productive labs, Collins said.

The White House plans to release details of Trump’s 2018 budget request on Tuesday. Congress then will have barely 4 months to take action before the 1 October start of the 2018 fiscal year.