President Donald Trump's proposal to cut nearly a fifth of the NIH's budget seems to be dead on arrival.
House Republicans and Democrats joined forces Wednesday in a House Oversight hearing to condemn the proposal, calling instead for more funding for biomedical research, especially to treat and prevent cancer. Noting that there's probably not a family in the U.S. that hasn't been touched by cancer, Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) said, "I don't think anyone, even in Congress, is going to support taking away funding from the NIH."
Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the Oversight Committee, called the budget proposal, unveiled two weeks ago, an embarrassment. "I hated the president's budget," he said, particularly the nearly $6 billion in cuts proposed for the NIH and the impact such a cut would have on cancer research. Referencing the number of lives lost every year to cancer, including both of his parents, Chaffetz said cancer research "should be the national imperative." (See BioWorld Today, March 17, 2017.)
Meanwhile, Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) opened a separate hearing Wednesday on the president's Health and Human Services (HHS) budget before a House Appropriations subcommittee by expressing his hopes that the full fiscal 2017 budget will give the NIH a "substantial increase" in funding. As chairman of the subcommittee, Cole said he's working to pass that budget before the current continuing resolution expires late next month.
His comments defied the president's call this week for a $1.2 billion cut in NIH funding for the remainder of fiscal 2017, which ends Sept. 30.
For the most part, the Appropriations subcommittee hearing drilled down on the scant details of the president's fiscal 2018 budget blueprint that would cut the NIH budget by 18 percent and make the FDA more reliant on industry funding by doubling user fees as part of a plan to slice $15.1 billion from HHS. The cuts are intended to help pay for a $54 billion increase in military spending, as well as increases for border security and law enforcement.
Throughout both House hearings, Democratic and Republican lawmakers stressed that public health itself is a national safety and security issue. The NIH and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are every bit as important for national defense as the Pentagon, Cole said, adding that Americans are "much more likely to die in a pandemic than in a terrorist attack."
In his written testimony and opening remarks on the HHS piece of the president's 2018 budget, which is expected to be fleshed out by mid-May, HHS Secretary Tom Price avoided mentioning the NIH cuts, instead focusing on funding to fight the national opioid epidemic, preparedness funding and efforts to fight childhood obesity.
When pressed by members of the subcommittee about the president's proposed NIH cuts, Price said they would target duplicative programs and seek greater efficiency by getting more out of every research dollar invested. One area that could be cut without impacting actual research dollars is indirect costs.
Price said that after recently taking over as HHS secretary, he was struck by the "extraordinary amount" the NIH is spending on indirect costs to hospitals and institutes that receive grants from the agency. Thirty percent of each grant is going to nonresearch costs. More of that money should be going to actual medical research, Price added.
Rep. Andy Harris (R-Md.) pointed out that the NIH paid $6.4 billion in indirect costs last year 10 percent more than the total the president proposed cutting from the agency. The 30 percent the NIH pays for indirect costs is triple what the private sector is paying, Harris said. For example, the American Lung Association refuses to pay any indirect costs, and the American Heart Association limits such costs to 10 percent of a grant, as does the Alzheimer's Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is one of the more generous groups, paying 12 percent for indirect costs, Harris said.