Government & Politics

Republicans queasy about Trump’s cuts to medical research

In this Jan. 14, 2014, photo, Daniel Bennett, 26, of College Park, Md., has live flu virus sprayed into his nose as part of a study at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md.
In this Jan. 14, 2014, photo, Daniel Bennett, 26, of College Park, Md., has live flu virus sprayed into his nose as part of a study at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. AP

President Donald Trump’s budget would slash funding for the National Institutes of Health by nearly $6 billion, or 19 percent, a proposal that’s likely to run into staunch opposition from conservatives within Trump’s own party.

Two years ago, Republicans helped secure the largest budget increase for NIH in more than a decade. Led by Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and Rep. Kevin Yoder and Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas, the effort resulted in a $2 billion jump in funding and enabled the NIH to give out 1,147 more grants nationwide.

The GOP lawmakers again worked across the aisle in November to pass the bipartisan Cures Act, which would allocate more money to the NIH. It had less than Blunt, Yoder and Moran had wanted, but more than President Barack Obama had requested in his budget.

So when Trump released his budget on Thursday, proposing an NIH budget of about $26 billion, it quickly became apparent that the cuts to medical research were one of the few proposals that Republicans would be willing to criticize openly.

“More than 300 members voted to boost medical research by billions in November,” Yoder said in a statement, “we cannot turn around a few short months later and slash its budget.”

He said funding to research cures for diseases like cancer, Alzheimer’s, or Parkinson’s should be a priority regardless of political party.

“I will fight to ensure that these proposed cuts to medical research funding never make it into law,” Yoder said.

The Trump budget provides no details, but pledges “a major reorganization of NIH’s Institutes and Centers to help focus resources on the highest priority research and training activities...” It also says it will reduce administrative costs and “rebalance federal contributions to research funding.”

Just last week, Blunt chaired a hearing on Capitol Hill to highlight the benefits of medical research at the NIH. In his opening statement, the Missouri senator stressed the importance of sustained increases in funding to NIH for biomedical researchers as they undertake multi-year studies in pursuit of new treatments and cures.

“The fiscal year 2016 funding increase cannot and should not be a one hit wonder,” Blunt said. “We should not point to that and believe we have accomplished our goal. ... We do not know the scientific advances that will be made in the next 10 years, but we do know that if we keep investing in NIH, they will keep making life-saving breakthroughs.”

The cuts could threaten grant money available for research institutions and hospitals in lawmakers’ home states, including the University of Kansas Medical Center in Yoder’s district in suburban Kansas City, Mo., which received $51.3 million from the NIH last year, and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, which got more than $407 million from NIH.

Adjusted for inflation, the institutes’ $32 billion annual budget already is nearly 20 percent smaller than it was in 2003, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The only hope for the NIH and medical researchers across the country is for Republicans like Blunt to oppose Trump and put country above ideology, said John DiPersio, chief of the division of oncology at Washington University School of Medicine in Missouri.

“I hope that these guys have enough gumption to stand up and say no,” DiPersio said.

When asked specifically about the proposed reductions in NIH funding, Blunt acknowledged “many concerns” about cuts to domestic spending programs in the president’s budget.

The budget is just a first step, and ultimately funding priorities will be determined by members of Congress, Blunt said in a statement to McClatchy.

Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director from South Carolina, voted against increased funding for the NIH last year as a member of the U.S. House, along with about 70 other conservatives.

The NIH has long been a target of the right for what some conservatives see as wasteful government spending. Heritage Action was one of several conservative groups that urged lawmakers to vote against the Cures Act, complaining that NIH “has a long and ugly track record of wasting taxpayer dollars on useless research,” such as the musical preferences of monkeys.

“Instead of creating new funding streams to the tune of billions, Congress should exercise better oversight of NIH research and demand real results, not studies of whether or not glaciers are sexist,” Heritage Action said in its “critical vote alert.”

As president, Trump has publicly expressed support for medical research. But he also complained in a radio interview during the campaign that he’d heard “so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”

The NIH handed out more than 1,100 grants to organizations in Missouri last year for a total of $509 million. In Kansas, more than $91 million worth of NIH grants went to 226 research projects.

In North Carolina, home of the Research Triangle of North Carolina State University, Duke University and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NIH provided $1.1 billion last year for 2,221 projects.

Lindsay Wise: 202-383-6007, @lindsaywise