Government

Called to the White House, Business Leaders Attest to NIH’s Value

May 09, 2017

Not even two months ago, the Trump administration shocked the biomedical research community by proposing an 18-percent cut to the budget of the National Institutes of Health.

On Monday at the White House, that attitude began to look like ancient history.

Ushered into the Executive Mansion by a contingent of biomedical industry chiefs, NIH leaders spent two hours with top administration officials — followed by a visit with President Trump himself — carefully explaining the economic and human-health importance of the federal investment in medical science.

Gary Gershoff, Getty Images
William E. Ford, an investment banker with ties to higher ed and the Trump administration, suggested the meeting, in which biomedical industry chiefs explained why they view government spending on research as critical.

Specific spending figures for the NIH were not discussed during the session, though the encouraging budgetary implications of the conversation seemed pretty clear, several participants said afterward.

"It was consciousness-raising," the NIH’s director, Francis S. Collins, told reporters afterward.

"The message in the room," Cornelia I. Bargmann, president of science at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, said in a Facebook posting, "was loud and clear: We need the NIH!"

While Dr. Collins and others avoided making any definitive declarations of victory, the event appeared to punctuate a two-month whipsaw for NIH fortunes. On March 16, the administration gave Congress a budget recommendation for the 2018 fiscal year that would slice NIH spending from $31.7 billion down to $25.9 billion. But last week, the Republican-led Congress made clear its rejection of such talk, approving a budget for the remainder of the 2017 fiscal year that raised NIH spending by $2 billion.

The meeting at the White House on Monday was proposed by William E. Ford, an investment banker with higher-education and Trump administration ties, who brought along several chief executives of leading pharmaceutical companies to tell administration officials why so many members of their own party view government spending on research as critical.

Mr. Ford’s group, which included the leaders of several major research universities, got a top-shelf reception, beginning with a welcome from Vice President Pence and ending with greetings from Mr. Trump in the Oval Office. Other participants included the president’s daughter, Ivanka M. Trump, who is a presidential assistant, and her husband, Jared C. Kushner, who is a senior adviser to the president.

Dr. Collins described it as a first chance to give the new administration a thorough explanation of the case he repeatedly argued during his eight years in the Obama administration: Private industry drives the U.S. economy, but it must have public-sector investment in research at key points to make the system work.

Mr. Ford, who is chief executive of the equity firm General Atlantic and serves on the boards of Rockefeller University and the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, brought along four pharmaceutical company leaders who vouched for Dr. Collins’s position.

All four — from Celgene, Royalty Pharma, Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Regeneron — explained that NIH funds the kind of critical early-stage university research that their companies cannot do.

"Their shareholders," Dr. Collins said of the drug companies, "would not tolerate the idea that they were putting their investments into the kind of science that’s not directly connected to a downstream product."

Meeting participants repeatedly put NIH spending into contexts relevant to Trump administration concerns about foreign competition. Some noted that current budget trends have left China only a few years away from overtaking the United States in total research spending. Already, Dr. Collins said, Chinese researchers last year filed more patents applications in the life sciences than did U.S. scientists. And in purely economic terms, he said, every dollar spent on the NIH produces more than eight times that amount in private-sector investment and economic growth.

“The message in the room was loud and clear: We need the NIH!”

The participants also pushed back on another administration stance that has caused concern for both universities and private employers: Mr. Trump’s hostility to immigrants. About 40 percent of U.S. Nobel laureates in recent years are foreign-born, and much of the nation’s scientific and economic success depends on attracting them to America, Dr. Collins said.

Helen H. Hobbs, a professor of internal medicine and molecular genetics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, said Chinese students often stayed in America after finishing their doctoral work. But now, she said, many of them return to China because of the quality of job offers they are receiving.

Ivanka Trump seemed especially engaged throughout the two-hour session, Dr. Collins said. He described her as asking "a number of very thoughtful questions" about the economic importance of NIH research, about the need to increase the share of women and minorities in the scientific work force, and about the importance of improving education at the grade-school level.

Briefing reporters afterward, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, gave the NIH an optimistic assessment, saying the meeting demonstrated "how America’s sustained leadership in the biomedical industry has resulted in immeasurable benefits to both our country’s economic and physical well-being."

While recalling the visit in enthusiastic tones, Dr. Collins avoided any overt promises when asked what exactly the day’s events might mean for the next time Mr. Trump suggests an NIH budget figure. "Time will tell," he said.

Paul Basken covers university research and its intersection with government policy. He can be found on Twitter @pbasken, or reached by email at paul.basken@chronicle.com.