Bipartisan cheers echoed through the U.S. Capitol in December as Congress overwhelmingly passed the 21st Century Cures Act, a bill to boost medical research funding by $4.8 billion over the next decade. Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee called it a "Christmas miracle … that will help virtually every American family." Other political leaders chimed in, noting medical research spurs not only treatment advances but also economic growth, particularly in states like Minnesota that are home to world-class medical centers.
But just three months later, President Trump has proposed a devastating $5.8 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the lead agency for funneling federal medical research grant dollars to scientists and doctors across the United States. The cut, proposed in the Trump 2018 budget released Thursday, is roughly 20 percent of the NIH's yearly budget and more than wipes out the gains made under the Cures Act. This deep reduction could do real harm to the nation's physical and economic health.
Congress should swiftly move to thwart these cuts and, fortunately, is in position to do so. The reason: The president's budget is essentially a spending request made of Congress, which appropriates federal dollars. It provides a starting point for negotiations between the executive and legislative branches. It's also a window into the priorities of the new president. The initial look-through is not flattering.
Trump's budget unsurprisingly reflects his oft-stated desire to hike defense spending, with a 9 percent boost in military funding, the Washington Post reported. But the budget also shows stunning disregard for the important work done by agencies such as the U.S. State Department, which faces a 29 percent cut, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which could see a 21 percent hit. In addition, 19 agencies are eliminated entirely, including the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. These cuts are shortsighted, and because these agencies consume far fewer dollars than the military or entitlement programs such as Medicare, savings found here won't go very far toward balancing the budget.
Still, it's the outrageous budget ax taken to the NIH that defies understanding. The public dollars plowed into research provide the basic science for breakthroughs — a key reason why many blockbuster treatments are birthed within our borders. Private-sector funding generally builds on this work to bring new medicines to market but isn't a substitute for the federal government's vast investment in foundational research.
Crimping the NIH funding pipeline could delay new treatments for cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer's and other conditions — an unacceptable outcome. It also could jeopardize economic growth. Most NIH funds (80-plus percent) are distributed through competitive grants to more than 300,000 researchers. This research ecosystem employs doctors, scientists and lab staff — "supporting more than 350,000 jobs across the United States and contributing some $60 billion annually in economic activity," according to United for Medical Research, an advocacy group composed of academic institutions, private firms and patient advocates.
NIH awards totaled $496.7 million in Minnesota in 2015, supported 7,465 jobs and generated $1.29 billion in economic activity, the advocacy group estimated. These dollars are not the government waste frequently decried by budget hawks. Instead, they're vital to Minnesotans' well-being on several levels. The state's congressional delegation must protect this investment.