April 27, 2017

March on Science Movement Focuses on Trump-Era Science Policies

The March for Science on April 22, 2017 focused national attention on a number of science-impacting developments under the Trump administration. The march heralds more of developing movement than a single event. For the biomedical research community, the immediate concern is a proposed cut to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget of about 18% which is quite radical, and is a sharp departure from the recent Congressional efforts to restore the NIH funding decline over the last decade (see factsheet). A commentary by Harold Varmus, Nobel Prize winner and former director of NIH, notes the national effects of reductions to the NIH budget:
To understand just how devastating a cut of less than 20 percent of an agency’s budget would be requires some understanding of how the N.I.H. operates. Very little of its typical annual budget is spent on the agency’s administration: The industrious, underpaid government scientists who manage the funding of the N.I.H.’s research programs consume less than 5 percent of its budget. Only a bit more, about 10 percent, supports the work of government scientists. In sharp contrast, over 80 percent of its resources are devoted to competitively reviewed biomedical research projects, training programs and science centers, affecting nearly every district in the country.
Ironically, at the close of the Obama administration, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, which would add a new $6 billion to medical research; it received widespread bipartisan support. It was particularly welcomed by the NIH leadership as promoting several new frontier initiatives: Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and the Precision Medicine Initiative (PMI). 

So the NIH funding climate remains turbulent, which is not optimal for a funding agency that makes multi-year grants to researchers. The NIH budget proposal was a motivating factor for many march participants, including research scientists. The disconnect between the vitality of American biomedical science and the political vulnerability of federal support is readily apparent. Decades of investment in life science research has had a cumulative effect of integrating molecular biology into medical practice, with many prospects for precise and targeted interventions in disease processes. But it's more than that at stake; the generation of scientific knowledge as a public good is an enterprise worth funding and protecting.

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