Back to the Middle Ages

The current administration under the direction of Trumph has published a new budget proposal for 2018 discretionary spending. It does not take a Ph.D. in economics to realize that aside from a huge 54 billion dollar increase to the military (and with the exception of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs), all of the domestic departments have been targeted for massive cuts. This includes the Department of Health and Human Services, which is the department that houses the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH currently has a budget of about 31 billion dollars, which it uses to supports competitive grant programs that are the mainstay of this country’s research enterprise. These are grants in basic science and biomedical research as well as so-called ‘translational grants’ aimed at translating basic research findings to bedside treatments, and of course purely clinical research such as drug trials in patients. Trump has proposed a draconian cut in funding of about 18% or 5.8 billion dollars, that would reduce funding to 25 billion dollars—a funding low not seen in this millennium.

Just for context, for the last ~15 years, NIH funding has remained fairly stagnant, with the exception of a much awaited bipartisan-supported 2 billion dollar increase last year. The flat budget has seen a severe decline in US-led research advances, as mounting costs for equipment, research tools and reagents, and of course, personnel, have dramatically decreased the ability of researchers to make significant new discoveries. This, coupled with the natural growth of the number of biomedical researchers (without increasing funding for more grants) has led to low success rates for grant applicants.

There is little doubt that such a cut would have a devastating effect on our biomedical research program, which until now, has been the envy of countries around the world. The US has been able to draw the best and the brightest to its shores, to take advantage of the critical mass of brainpower and outstanding research infrastructure that we have enjoyed. This has fueled and incredible satellite community of biotech stat-ups and advanced equipment, all of which have a huge impact on our economy.

Of course, the major concern is not merely the negative impact on the economy, it is the overwhelming hit that biomedical research may suffer. Nobel Laureate Arthur Kornberg once said: “Without advances, medicine regresses and reverts to witchcraft.” Former director of the NIH appointed by George W. Bush, Elias Zerhouni, said that the cuts would be catastrophic, and said the following: “It will be a catastrophic event because the NIH funds grants over four or five years and therefore only has 20% of its budget to give at any one year. Therefore, if you cut it by $6 billion it means next year there will be no grants. It’s really ill-advised, I think, to change budgets so drastically so quickly. It will be very detrimental, especially on young investigators or new investigators, new science.”

Fortunately, the NIH enjoys broad-based bipartisan support from the US Congress and Senate, and representative from both parties have started to voice their serious concerns with the budget proposal overall, and the NIH budget cuts specifically. As scientists, the time has come to stand up for science and objective truth. Every one alive suffers or will suffer from disease, and without biomedical research, we will regress to the middle ages.




About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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2 Responses to Back to the Middle Ages

  1. Maria Wolters says:

    This is actually highly consistent with the rest of the budget, which penalises the weak and the sick.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    You may like to quote this (thanks to Thony Christie and his Whewell’sGhost blog for spotting it):

    Thucydides noted, presciently, as it turned out, that if Sparta and Athens were reduced to ruins, no one would believe that the two were comparable civilizations, for Sparta did not build great monuments. I would go further Sparta did not fund great plays, it did not nourish great philosophy or science. Athens did. And so to us, Greece is Athens, and Sparta is a strange
    anomaly, an afterthought in history.

    That’s what happens when you stop funding the arts, humanities and sciences. History forgets you.

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