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Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), who leads a National Institutes of Health spending panel

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Key legislator tells Trump officials to back off on proposed overhead spending cap for NIH

An influential legislator wants President Donald Trump’s administration and fellow Republicans to drop the notion of capping overhead costs on grants funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And yesterday that lawmaker, Representative Tom Cole (R–OK), used his clout as chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NIH to administer a dose of what he hopes will be preventive medicine.

A huge supporter of NIH, Cole has already written language into a 2018 spending bill that would block a proposal by Trump to impose a 10% cap on what NIH pays universities for the so-called indirect costs of conducting federally funded research on their campuses. (Now, NIH spends 28% of its total award money on indirect costs.) A Senate spending bill written by Senator Roy Blunt (R–MO), who partnered with Cole to provide $2 billion increases for NIH in 2016 and 2017, contains a similar ban.

But Cole is worried that policymakers wanting to trim federal spending will see indirect costs—the money spent to maintain research labs and comply with federal regulations—as an irresistible target. To rebuff those efforts, Cole held a hearing that allowed the biomedical research community—and lawmakers from both parties—to defend the 75-year-old practice against perceived attacks.

“I don’t want [a cap] to become official theology that appears in every presidential budget and in the proposed budgets of various congressional caucuses,” Cole told ScienceInsider after the 2-hour hearing. “I’m all for saving money. But if it’s a bad way, and destructive of what’s been a very productive biomedical research enterprise for decades, then I don’t want people to walk down that road.”

Cole is especially interested in bending the ear of White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, whose office has already begun to vet agency requests for what will emerge in February as the president’s 2019 budget request to Congress.

“I’m not criticizing [the Office of Management and Budget],” Cole told ScienceInsider. “Look, their job is to find ways to save money. And they didn’t have a lot of time to generate the president’s 2018 budget request. I just don’t think that there are the savings to be had [in capping indirect costs] that at first blush might appear to be there. And one of the reasons we had this hearing is to create a public record that they could benefit from.”

Biomedical research lobbyists at the hearing were delighted by Cole’s full-throated defense of the status quo, and some even claimed partial credit. “We realized that we needed to do a better job of getting the message out, so we’ve upped our educational outreach to members of Congress,” said one.

Cole invited four senior academic research administrators—three of whom work at institutions that are major recipients of NIH funding—to explain how they depend on indirect costs to supplement the research funds their faculty members bring in. The witnesses spoke reverently of a “compact” forged during World War II, in which the federal government agreed to fund academic research through competitive grants in return for universities training the next generation of scientists. Democrats and Republican members of the spending panel vied for the chance to toss softball questions that highlighted the dividends this arrangement has paid to the nation—and the world—in improving public health, curing disease, and raising living standards.

I’m all for saving money. But if it’s a bad way, and destructive of what’s been a very productive biomedical research enterprise for decades, then I don’t want people to walk down that road.

Representative Tom Cole (R–OK)

But at least one member of the subcommittee wasn’t buying that storyline. Representative Andy Harris (R–MD) asserted that universities are making money off the current system of indirect cost reimbursement and that cutting them wouldn’t hurt the research enterprise.

“I want to thank [one of the witnesses] for being honest in saying that other funding sources don’t pay as much as NIH [in indirect costs],” Harris said during the hearing, in which he cited lower rates used by private foundations and other government agencies. “That’s why everybody applies first to NIH, because NIH is the most generous funder.”

Harris also believes that the status quo has hurt young investigators hoping to win NIH funding to launch their careers. Capping indirect costs, he argues, would force NIH and the biomedical community to address their plight.

“What you heard today from people is that the current system is working great, so don’t mess with any of it,” Harris told ScienceInsider after the hearing. “I would argue that, over the last 35 years, the system for funding young investigators is not working. And that’s our future.”

“If the purpose [of today’s hearing] is just to reopen a serious discussion of how to fund young investigators, then that’s a positive step,” Harris continued. “One idea was to cap the indirect cost rate, like many agencies already do. But there are many ways to do it. My point is that there should be a dedicated stream of funding for them. And we can talk about where it comes from.”

At the hearing, Harris floated one idea, namely, that NIH put a cap on indirect costs that accompany the “fourth or fifth” NIH grant awarded to an individual. “That’s just gravy to the university,” he argued, a claim that the witnesses later disputed.

Harris also criticized NIH officials for abandoning a recent proposal to cap the total amount of money going to senior investigators, an approach they said would free up money for early-career scientists. NIH has since announced it will set aside money to fund young investigators whose grant proposals just miss being funded.

Cole says he agrees that NIH needs to find better ways to help young investigators. But he insists that capping indirect costs shouldn’t be part of that discussion, calling the idea “arbitrary, unreasonable, and ultimately destructive of the research enterprise.” He also chided White House officials for linking the cap to the broader debate about federal spending and deficit reduction.

“If the aim [of the cap] is to save money so we can spend more in other areas, let’s be honest and call it what it is,” Cole told ScienceInsider, adding that he supports the president’s push for more military spending. “But this isn’t going to make the research pot any bigger.”

“We can always learn to do things better,” he added. “But when you look at the evidence, you come to the conclusion that the system isn’t really broken in the way that they have suggested it is. So I hope that they back off.”