Friday, May 26, 2017

Health and Business Execs Make the Case for NIH Funding

A chalkboard message that reads, "Invest in your health."
Photo credit: Shutterstock
At a time when the White House has been flirting with the idea of slashing billions from the budget of the National Institutes of Health, a group of executives, government officials, and academic leaders recently went to Washington, D.C. to make the case for the NIH’s continued funding.

The meeting, organized by General Atlantic CEO William E. Ford, involved 27 people, including NIH Director Francis Collins, Vice President Mike Pence, nine White House officials, and a cadre of top names in the academic and biotech worlds.

In case you’re not familiar with what the NIH does, it’s basically the largest biomedical research agency in the world. Its team of scientists does research on treating and preventing chronic diseases, curing infectious diseases, using new medical technologies to promote wellness, and healthy aging. The agency also provides grants to researchers at universities and other academic institutions. In other words, the NIH is a pretty important part of the U.S. health infrastructure.

Although Congress granted the NIH a $34 billion budget for 2017, Trump’s proposed “skinny budget” for the fiscal year 2018 (which begins in October 2017) reduces the NIH’s budget by $5.8 billion.

The point the White House visitors were trying to make is that private investment is not an adequate substitute for the NIH’s support for research at colleges and universities. They also said the odds of winning NIH funding for that research are getting slimmer and slimmer because the organization’s budget has stayed flat for years.

The group worries that Trump’s immigration policies are making it harder to recruit foreign scientists as well. University of Texas heart disease researcher Helen Hobbs said her Chinese postdocs are now taking jobs in China rather than staying in the U.S.

“Federal support for fundamental science in academia is the driver of national innovation, leading to new medicines that improve quality of life and longevity and make major contributions to job and economic growth,” said Stanford University President Richard P. Lifton. “Biotechnology took off in this country because of U.S. leadership in federal support for science. Our system is the envy of the world.”

Collins tried to drive the point home by noting how funding the NIH will check two boxes on Trump’s priority list: jobs and the healthcare budget.

Their tag-team approach may have had the desired effect. According to Ford, the two-hour meeting went well. “The members of the new administration we met with were very receptive to our message, and I’m confident that a productive dialogue has begun,” he said.

Chan Zuckerberg Initiative President of Science Cori Bargmann agreed. “The message in the room was heard loud and clear: We need the NIH! And we need it now more than ever,” she wrote in a Facebook post just after the meeting.

People may have emerged from the meeting optimistic, but nobody talked about the elephant in the room—the proposed cuts to NIH’s 2018 budget.

Are the NIH’s funding prospects going to improve because of the meeting?  “I think time will tell,” Collins said.