What Budget Cuts Might Mean for US Science

A look at the historical effects of downsized research funding suggests that the Trump administration’s proposed budget could hit early-career scientists the hardest.  

By | March 21, 2017

WIKIMEDIA, NATIONAL CANCER INSTITUTE

The Trump administration’s proposed federal budget has already evoked significant backlash from scientists and science advocacy organizations across the United States. The FY2018 budget proposal, released by the White House last week, includes massive cuts to agencies that fund research, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Despite the alarm surrounding the news of proposed science funding cuts, experts stressed that the budget request is unlikely to pass as is. “This is the president’s proposal . . . this is a statement from the White House about what they would like to see,” Rush Holt, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), told The Scientist. “It’s Congress that makes the appropriations.”

Congress has traditionally shown bipartisan support for biomedical research, said Elias Zerhouni, who was director of the NIH from 2002 until 2008. “I used to say that ‘Disease knows no party affiliation’ and ‘Disease knows no politics,’ and frankly, that’s my experience, so I’m hopeful that the damage will not be as great as what is being proposed.”

See “Science Advocates Decry Trump’s Proposed Budget

“I’m really confident that once they’ve sat down and thought about it, they’re going to think through what it means to do something like start cutting back on NIH,” said Robert Cook-Deegan, a Washington, DC–based Arizona State University professor. The proposed cuts to the agency are “so stupid that I just don’t think that any administration is going to do it,” he added.

“The other thing that’s worth looking at is that all these proposals have been [made] at a time when there’s basically zero science advice at the top—and that actually matters,” Cook-Deegan noted.  

In February, thousands of researchers and science supporters signed a letter to the president, encouraging him to prioritize appointing a Science Advisor.

Brain drain? 

If the proposed cuts do go into effect, trainees and early-career scientists, such as PhD students and postdocs, will likely be hit the hardest. A close-to-20 percent cut to the NIH budget would mean that very few new grants would be funded, according to Cook-Deegan. “NIH is particularly vulnerable [to the cuts] because unlike the DOD [Department of Defense–funded] medical research programs that have to spend their money every year. . . [around] 75 to 80 percent of NIH’s budget is pre-allocated ever year because it’s carried over from grants that have already been given.” That means there would be little money left over to support new projects, unless money meant for existing grants is redistributed.

“I can’t remember any agency going through this drastic a cut in such short a time,” Zerhouni told The Scientist. “It really damages what I think people don’t appreciate—it’s not a question of money, it’s a question of the human capital behind those funds.”

Zerhouni pointed to a budget cut that occurred during his tenure at NIH: a 1 percent reduction in 2006, following Hurricane Katrina. “Even after Katrina, what I noticed was that . . . new investigators don’t get funded [and] universities don’t appoint the young assistant professors,” he told The Scientist. “So they [early-career researchers] get discouraged and leave. Ultimately, you’re reducing the human capital that you need to sustain for the long term.”

According to Arthur Levine, senior vice chancellor at the University of Pittsburgh, the number of NIH-funded investigators age 36 and under has fallen, while the number of agency grant-supported researchers age 60 and over has increased. “When the context is as competitive as it is now, the NIH . . . obviously [is] not willing to risk sending funds to young people who are not yet fully proven,” he said. “The sadness of that is that, sometimes, the very best ideas in science come from young people—you look at the history of Nobel Prizes, for example, and the majority have been given to people who’ve done their best work early on.” In 2015, Levine and 17 other medical school deans coauthored a commentary outlining the consequences of the reduction in federal support for biomedical research in Science Translational Medicine.

“In these times of change, the morale just plummets and we lose a lot of people,” said Cook-Deegan. “I think even if the cuts don’t go into effect, this kind of uncertainty is just the sort of thing that [makes people think] ‘Do I really want to do this for the rest of my life?’”

Funding cuts may also disproportionally affect institutions that aren’t traditional research powerhouses, said Clay Marsh, vice president and executive dean for health sciences at West Virginia University. “What’s happened in terms of the slowness of the growth of the NIH portfolio is that many places have not been able to keep up,” Marsh told The Scientist. “For instance . . .  we don’t have as much base funding as you might have in Massachusetts with all the Boston institutions, so playing catch-up becomes a real problem if you’re trying to compete for these relatively hard-to-get grants.”

Historical cuts

Following the doubling of the NIH budget that occurred between 1998 and 2003, agency funding has remained mostly flat over the last decade. “Since the end of the doubling of the NIH appropriation in 2003, there has not been a sufficient appropriation to compensate for the inflationary cost of biomedical research,” Levine told The Scientist.

The largest cut to NIH in recent history occurred in early 2013, when sequestration hit scientific organizations across the U.S. with significant funding cuts. The NIH budget was at that time reduced by 5 percent. This led to fewer funded grants and, as a result, success rates for submitted proposals dropped to a historic low. According to Science, the number of investigators with NIH funding dropped by as many as 1,000 from FY2012 to FY2013.

In addition, the results of a 2013 American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) survey, which included more than 3,700 US scientists, painted a dire picture. More than three-quarters of respondents reported that, compared to a time before the funding decline began, following sequestration they spent more time working on grants yet ended up getting fewer funds. And only 2 percent of respondents reported that they were able to find private investors to help make up for this loss.

See “Sequester Hitting Scientists Hard

In recent years, however, things have started to look up for biomedical research. In mid-2015, a Senate panel approved a $2 billion (around 6 percent) raise to the NIH funds for 2016—the biggest boost in more than a decade. And in late 2016, Congress approved the 21st Century Cures Act, which allocated an additional $4.8 billion in funds over 10 years to three NIH programs: the BRAIN Initiative, the Cancer Moonshot, and the Precision Medicine Initiative.

“There’s a particular irony here in that, just in the past year, the very same Congress approved the 21st Century Cures Act, which gave new money to the NIH [that] now we could lose in less than a year,” Levine said.

The Trump administration’s proposed budget has painted a very different future for science in America. “The expectations [were high] under Obama, especially those last three years, because . . . there was just tremendous support for biomedical research that was unusually strong from the top,” said Cook-Deegan. “I think we got used to that, and clearly that’s not the case anymore.”

COURTESY OF AAAS

See "Science Policy in 2017"

 

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Comments

Avatar of: True Scientist

True Scientist

Posts: 59

March 22, 2017

Not all Science is comprised by EPA and NIH grants exclusively.

Avatar of: Inventor

Inventor

Posts: 10

March 22, 2017

We have to get rtump's head examined. He's going to make the untied states third world counrty. Unable to compete in science and tech.

Avatar of: Inventor

Inventor

Posts: 10

March 22, 2017

We have to get trump's head examined. He's going to make the untied states third world counrty. Unable to compete in science and tech.

Avatar of: Inventor

Inventor

Posts: 10

March 22, 2017

 

 

We have to get trump's head examined. He's going to make the united states a third world counrty. Unable to compete in science and tech.

 

Avatar of: Mike Holloway

Mike Holloway

Posts: 22

March 22, 2017

"The proposed cuts to the agency are “so stupid that I just don’t think that any administration is going to do it,” 

The "administration" has already done the stupid rather deliberately, don't you think?  The real damage now will come from how much wind has been given to the sails of the Republican anti-science no-nothings. The Narcissist's "budget" could give them the leverage they need to gut everything that doesn't fit into fundamentalist Christian ideology.  Right wing media is ecstatic about cuts to research.

"In February, thousands of researchers and science supporters signed a letter to the president, encouraging him to prioritize appointing a Science Advisor."

180 degrees wrong.  The idiot is likely to appoint someone from the Discovery Institute.  We'd be far better off if no one mentioned research and the NIH to the Narcissist, Fox News, or Alex Jones. There will be no help there.  If they ignore us, and the few Republicans in Congress with more than two brain cells keep the funding up, we might get through the next 4 years.

Avatar of: Salticidologist

Salticidologist

Posts: 40

March 22, 2017

For many decades now, most young scientists, particularly original ones, have not been supported by these grants.  a lot of administrators are dependent on them.  Since cuts are now inevitable other sources of money will have to be found.  Gates Fountation?  Perhaps it is time to think about a return to private science.

Avatar of: Multinational

Multinational

Posts: 1

March 23, 2017

One of the meanings of Trump is "invent a false accusation" Here we see your beloved leader arranging things so as to have more money in his pocket in the short term. But in the long term it can only damage the US economy, thanks for helping out the European, Japanese and Chinese economies. The term wheeler dealer springs to my mind.

Avatar of: OutBox17

OutBox17

Posts: 8

March 24, 2017

Yes, budget cuts are desperately needed. They are very important to kill redundancy, superfluous and unwanted mediocre science, stop abuses, plagiarism, duplication of figures, data massaging, data fabrication....etc. It is entirely false that it will stop innovation. Innovative and creative people always find the way to get funding and continue excelling and producing. It is a myth and preposterous to believe and think that more money will allow scientists to compete better.  This is a fallacy! Look at the productive and high quality scientific works coming from European and some Middle East scientists without the fanfare and hype that characterizes the US academic institutions. They always think they are the best, the top ten, and unbeatable. Do you know that most academic institutions pay big money to be ranked as the best? Do you know that the fields of math, statistics and algorithms are used, misused and abused the majority of times by scientists to get the data they want to see? I invite everyone to read the book ‘weapons of math destruction’ by Cathy O’Neal to see how these fields are abused.  For universities, everything is about image, showing up, and competition for news headlines. Come down to earth; this is the real world we live. Before giving comments, research for the truth and think. Just look at the number of publication retractions coming from ’top’ universities publishing in high-ranking journals. Look at the technology transfer offices of universities clogged with useless discoveries with zero applications. Yet thousands of dollars have been wasted in useless patents. It is very rare when something useful comes up from university labs. There are hundreds of studies and publications confirming that the majority of  'discoveries' from university labs are irreproducible. I could write a treatise about all this. So, do not blame me when I say that cutting budgets is fundamental to eliminate mediocrity and waste of money.

Avatar of: True Scientist

True Scientist

Posts: 59

Replied to a comment from Inventor made on March 22, 2017

March 24, 2017

Before attempting to check somebody's else head it may be a good idea to check your own first. Those numerous repetead posts are very disturburning.

Avatar of: True Scientist

True Scientist

Posts: 59

Replied to a comment from OutBox17 made on March 24, 2017

March 24, 2017

Yes, cutting budget wastefull spending is fundamental to eliminate mediocrity. The problem is that  those engaged in pseudo-scientific activity do not want to give away their comfortable chairs and generously compensated positions. To protect their seats under the warm sun they are using all imaginable methods no matter how ethically dirty they are. The more mediocre the merrier...

Avatar of: True Scientist

True Scientist

Posts: 59

Replied to a comment from Mike Holloway made on March 22, 2017

March 24, 2017

For your information, not everybody thinks that anything stupid has been done since inauguration. Rather opposite, many attempts are on the way to stop and compensate for stupidity flourishing before that. Hopefully, there will be some real damage to hiding-behind-science arguments.

Left wing media is delirious about cuts to wasteful spending that they call "research" hoping that enythng will go.

Country is looking forward to 8 years of prosperity despite presence of Democrats in Congress with much less than two brain cells.

Avatar of: True Scientist

True Scientist

Posts: 59

Replied to a comment from Multinational made on March 23, 2017

March 24, 2017

Trump's  "invent a false accusation"???  Are you out of touch with reality or your beloved media?

Spending money wisely does create a reserve and space to maneuver, what's wrong with that? How in the world it may possibly damage US economy and help Europe, Japan, and China at the same time?

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