Obama’s science projects would survive Trump’s huge cuts to research funding
President Trump wants to carve a whopping $5.8 billion out of the National Institutes of Health’s budget next year. But he’s handcuffed in one regard: He can’t touch the big science projects that President Obama launched.
That’s because Congress last year overwhelmingly passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which guarantees NIH $4.8 billion over the next 10 years. The vast majority of that money is earmarked for a trio of Obama’s signature initiatives — and Congress has shown no signs of backing away from those appropriations.
That may provide some comfort to science advocates, who have roundly decried Trump’s budget request as irresponsibly harsh. But it paints the president’s request in even starker terms: Setting aside the roughly $500 million that 21st Century Cures will add to next year’s NIH budget, Trump’s plan would slash the agency’s funding by 20 percent.
Left untouched is the Precision Medicine Initiative, which aims to sequence the genomes of 1 million Americans and is due $1.5 billion over the next decade. Same goes for a neuroscience effort called the BRAIN Initiative, which will receive roughly the same amount. Also still intact: former Vice President Joe Biden’s cancer moonshot, which is in line for $1.8 billion.
“We’re pleased to see that those initiatives will continue to be funded, but we know that this proposed cut would impact the thousands of research grants that NIH provides,” said Suzanne Ffolkes, vice president of communication at Research!America, a nonprofit advocate for biomedical science. “It would mean 2,000 fewer research grants and the loss of tens of thousands of jobs.”
But that’s only if Congress gives Trump exactly what he wants, which looks increasingly unlikely. The presidential budget request is essentially a wish list, one lawmakers are hardly obliged to follow. And funding medical research has enough bipartisan support to make Trump’s proposal a nonstarter, members of Congress have said.
“I don’t think it could be passed, honestly, through the House,” Representative Tom Cole, a Republican who leads the House health appropriations subcommittee, told STAT on Monday. “And I’m certain it can’t be passed through the Senate.”
That said, if Republicans in Congress want to fund Trump’s major budget priorities — sweeping tax cuts and an increase in defense spending — they will have to find cuts elsewhere in government.
And that pressure makes the promise embedded in the 21st Century Cures Act of $4.8 billion for Obama’s big science initiatives all the more important, said Misha Angrist, a professor at Duke University’s Social Science Research Institute.
“I’m less cynical than I used to be about grand programs” like the moonshot, Angrist wrote in an email. “Given the scorched-earth approach we’re seeing from the executive branch, these initiatives are a way to grow — or at least partially protect — biomedical research spending that would otherwise be under budgetary siege.”
Specific NIH funding cuts listed in Trump’s budget include: A 19 percent cut for the National Cancer Institute, 18 percent for the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and 19 percent for the National Institute of Mental Health. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration would see its budget fall by 9 percent.
“This couldn’t come at a worse time,” said Dr. Eric Topol, director of the Scripps Translational Science Institute in California. “I’ve been a student of biomedicine for three decades, and there’s never been a time this exciting for research.”