Even the Threat of Budget Cuts Can Hurt American Science
A climate of uncertainty leaves the National Institutes of Health unable to plan for the future.
By Ed Yong
May 31 2017
If the White House has its way, in 2018, 5.8 billion dollars will disappear from the budget of the National Institutes of Health—the largest funder of biomedical research in the U.S. That cut, which was revealed as part of President Trump’s budget proposal last Tuesday, represents 18 percent of the NIH’s budget. It has been described as “a significant blow to medical research” that would “set off a lost generation in American science.”
It’s also unlikely to actually happen.
“Presidential budgets are a statement of presidential priorities but Congress makes the decision—and there’s strong bipartisan support for the NIH,” says Tom Cole, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, and chair of the House subcommittee that oversees the NIH’s budget. That support was evident earlier this month, when Congress totally ignored Trump’s proposal to slice $1.2 billion from the NIH for fiscal year 2017, and instead awarded the agency an extra $2 billion. “This is the second year in a row that NIH has received a substantial increase, and the intention of Congress is that that continue,” says Cole.
A $2 billion windfall is clearly better than a $1.2 billion shortfall, but that extra bolus of money is not the obvious bonanza that it seems. Congress may be holding back the Trump administration’s desire to cut funding for scientific research, but the threat of such cuts still looms. And in that atmosphere of uncertainty, it’s hard for agencies like the NIH to work out how to effectively channel money into research.
The problem is that good science takes time. Projects can take years to come to fruition, which is why the NIH only ever awards grants for two to five years—never just one. And the money for, say, a three-year grant isn’t doled out in one fell swoop. Instead, it’s allocated on a yearly basis, which means that it’s highly susceptible to fluctuating budgets. Imagine that the NIH commits all of its extra $2 billion for 2017 to new three-year grants. If the agency is hit by a $5.8 billion cut in 2018 or 2019, those new grants would wither. Researchers would have to stop their work, and fire newly-hired staff. That $2 billion would effectively have been thrown away.
The agency can’t reserve the money for future years, either. All of it has to be spent within fiscal year 2017, which ends on September 30th. This means that when NIH staff heard about the extra $2 billion at the start of May, they had only five months to work out how to spend it all. “It’s chaos figuring out how to move this money,” a source at the agency tells me. It could go towards new equipment, supplemental funding for existing grantees, or bridge funding to tide established scientists over between grants. “But it’s just small chunks here and there,” the source says. “There’s no way we could fund a full project.”
One could argue that this is a lot of ungrateful hand-wringing. They did, after all, get more money. And as Cole has said, and as Congress has signaled, Trump’s drastic cuts may never materialize. But that’s no reason for complacency, argues Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate who was NIH director from 1993 to 1999. “Most of us think that Congressional appropriators, happily fond of NIH, will not allow the cuts to happen,” he says. “Still, it would be foolish to assume that we will be saved without an effort to defend ourselves.”