The Trump administration’s call on Thursday to slash almost 20 percent of the National Institutes of Health’s budget led scientists to warn that such cuts would sap biomedical research in the United States. But it also left many of them with more personal feelings: Anxiety. Fear. Sadness.
The NIH has bipartisan defenders in Congress who in recent years have been able to bolster research funding and who will likely oppose cuts as deep as President Trump has proposed. But scientists said the budget blueprint signaled that the administration does not value their work.
Sebastian Lourido, a parasitic diseases expert, said the reductions would come at a crucial time for him. He’s starting an assistant professorship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this summer. The new position will allow Lourido, a fellow at the MIT’s Whitehead Institute, to grow his lab and pursue bolder ideas, but it also comes with a great pressure to attract funding.
“Generally I’m a very positive person, so I tend to see these things as requiring hard work and requiring several attempts, but I’m hopeful we’ll eventually break through,” Lourido said. “But to be completely realistic, I’m nervous.
“I can’t emphasize enough like how hard it already is, and how hard it would become if these changes to the NIH budget come to pass,” he added.
Just to be clear, the proposed 20% cut of the @NIH budget will devastate US biomedical research
— Leslie Vosshall (@pollyp1) March 16, 2017
Lourido’s work is in basic biomedical research: How have parasites evolved to attack humans? How are they able to infect cells so effectively? But the discoveries he and his colleagues are making in his budding lab — and at countless other labs around the country — could also uncover the next great biological discovery or cure for a disease.
“Almost any important translated discovery can trace its way back to a basic science investment, where no one who was working on that discovery at that time would know it would be translated that way,” said Gautam Dantas, who studies antibiotic resistance at Washington University in St. Louis.
Lourido’s fellowship allowed him to start his own lab after finishing his doctorate instead of first becoming a postdoctoral research in someone else’s lab. He’s received two NIH grants that allowed him to hire two technical assistants and two postdocs and pursue bigger, more important research.
Without the NIH funding, he said, his lab would not have been able to survey the entire genomes of parasites, which enabled them to pinpoint the genes that are not only crucial to their survival, but also potential susceptibilities. That research relied on the revolutionary genome-editing technology called CRISPR, which itself was discovered through basic research with no thought to translation and is now being explored as a possible tool to treat and cure diseases from cancer to HIV to genetic forms of blindness.
“It really changed the magnitude of the questions we were able to ask,” Lourido said.
Researchers describe NIH funding as the backbones of their labs. While a medical center or a university may employ them, the large majority of their research — and the costs of employing junior scientists — is supported by grants.
The NIH had a budget of more than $30 billion in fiscal 2016, with 80 percent of that awarded through grants to hundreds of thousands of researchers around the world. About 10 percent of the budget is allocated to the NIH’s own scientists.
NIH funding “gave me the opportunity to pursue my dream of conducting research to … help end the scourge of substance use disorders through the development of evidence-based treatment and prevention activities,” Jennifer Sharpe Potter, a researcher at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, wrote in an email. “My entire professional life would not be possible without funding from the NIH.”
Even senior scientists said the cuts could affect their work. Dr. John Morris, who is working on a large, longitudinal project to study who develops Alzheimer’s, said smaller grants would require him to enroll fewer people and follow them for less time. All that would hurt the power of his findings — and make it more difficult to develop prevention strategies.
“These are long-term studies, so to have a budget cut would seriously violate our ability to tell people, ‘We’re going to follow you for five years, for 10 years,’” said Morris, a neurologist at Washington University in St. Louis.
The proposed cuts to the @NIH budget alone would devastate the industries that saved Pittsburgh after the steel collapse.
— Timothy Verstynen (@tdverstynen) March 16, 2017
Some researchers noted that labs would have to abandon research projects and cut staff just as countries like China are ramping up their investments in biomedical research.
“Now is not the time to turn our backs on what has made America the greatest and most advanced economy in the world,” the Association of American Universities said in a statement.
Several scientists said what worried them the most was what the reductions would mean for the future of science. Aspiring researchers are already facing an increasingly steep climb moving from graduate programs to postdocs to being hired by a research institution. Making the funding gauntlet only more competitive might further discourage people.
“If I was a PhD student right now, I’d be questioning if I wanted to do this,” said Dr. Carlos del Rio, an HIV researcher at Emory University. He compared the loss of a generation of scientists to cutting down a forest: The trees won’t grow back by next year, and it would take a similarly long time for the scientific pipeline to be refueled.
The proposed 20% cut of the @NIH budget will devastate our biomedical research enterprise.
— Dr. Johnny Figueroa (@fig_neurolab) March 16, 2017
Dantas, the antibiotic resistance researcher, said a 20 percent cut to his funding would mean a loss of five or six graduate students and postdocs. Beyond that, Dantas said that Trump’s budget proposal “hurts the psyche” of scientists.
“These are some of the best and brightest people in our education system, who have chosen not to jump into careers that could immediately give them money because they believe in the enterprise,” he said. “That’s going to demoralize a lot of people. It tells them both implicitly and explicitly that their government doesn’t care about their livelihood and the things that they believe in.”