Administration

Science Advocates See Trump Backlash in Budget Boost

Shock over the size of the president's proposed cuts for the NIH apparently energized scientists and lawmakers

May 02, 2017

AACR
The president’s proposed steep cuts in the NIH budget have sparked strong protests. Above, thousands of people attending the annual meeting of the American Association for Cancer Research, in April, pressed for more, not less, federal support for research.

If there was any doubt that a Republican-led Congress might give a strong boost to federal science spending, the Trump administration probably sealed the deal.

With its call in March for a mammoth $6-billion cut in the annual budget of the National Institutes of Health, the administration appears to have done more than anything else to energize the science community and supportive lawmakers, advocates said.

“People probably stepped up more than we've ever seen, because of that really abysmal proposal that the president put out there.”

That spark culminated Monday with congressional leaders announcing their agreement on a $1-trillion federal budget package covering the rest of the 2017 fiscal year — extending to September 30 — that provides increases for several key science agencies, including a $2-billion boost at NIH.

The $2 billion represents a 6-percent single-year increase in the overall NIH budget. Within the NIH, the budget agreement would provide a 9-percent increase for the National Cancer Institute, the NIH’s largest division, along with major increases for additional priorities that include Alzheimer’s disease and antibiotic research.

Both the House of Representatives and Senate are expected to vote on the proposal later this week and send it to President Trump for his signature.

The bipartisan agreement isn’t a complete surprise, given that Republican leaders have been working for at least a couple years to reverse more than a decade of relatively flat budgets at NIH. But the Trump administration’s stark proposal for 2018, announced in March, now stands as a defining moment in the fight, said Jon Retzlaff, chief policy officer at the American Association for Cancer Research.

The impact of the Trump plan became clear in early April, Mr. Retzlaff said, when the association — the nation’s leading professional society for cancer researchers — gathered for its annual meeting in Washington and found its membership with an unprecedented desire to fight back and lobby Congress.

"People probably stepped up more than we’ve ever seen, because of that really abysmal proposal that the president put out there," he said.

The fear was especially palpable among younger cancer researchers, said David Pugach, vice president for federal relations at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. The cancer society is the largest nonprofit funder of cancer research, and makes a point of providing money to younger scientists so they can gain the experience necessary to win NIH support, Mr. Pugach said.

"People were genuinely shocked by the magnitude of that cut," he said of the Trump proposal in March. "So you saw people, who maybe only previously had a casual interest in advocacy, coming out of the woodwork and saying, ‘This is important, I’m scared, and I want to help in any way I can.’"

The activism may also have been helped by the hundreds of thousands of people who joined some 600 pro-science marches globally on April 22. The spending plan that lawmakers crafted for the remainder of this year suggests “that the Congress has listened to advocates for science — like those who participated in the march,” the march organizers said in a statement on Monday.

Although the NIH stands as the biggest winner among science agencies in the spending plan for the current year, the agreement also includes hefty increases for research at the Pentagon, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E, or Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, program. The Trump administration also backs increased military spending, but had asked for a 17-percent cut for NOAA and the elimination of ARPA-E, both of which involve work on environmental and climate issues.

Congress did, however, include a 3 percent cut for scientific work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, another agency the Trump administration has threatened. And the fiscal 2017 plan includes only a $9 million increase in the $7.5 billion budget of the National Science Foundation, which Republican leaders have fought over the issue of social science research.

As with the NIH, the increases at NOAA and ARPA-E reflect the value that lawmakers and the American public in many states place on science in areas such as hurricane and tornado warnings, said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the Association of American Universities.

Despite some political rhetoric challenging the value of science, the budget agreement overall "really shows what the priorities of Congress are," Mr. Ribeiro 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.