NIH Director Discusses “Challenging” Budget Cuts

In June 2017, Francis Collins, MD, was re-appointed as director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), becoming one of the few holdovers from the Obama administration to join the Trump administration. He accepted the position as President Trump announced a budget plan that would cut nearly 20 percent of the NIH budget. In an interview with the Washington Examiner, Dr. Collins expressed concern about the proposed budget cuts.

Noting that the proposed budget cuts “caused alarm” in the biomedical research community, Dr. Collins added that support for medical research is typically a bipartisan issue, and he expressed doubt that the proposed cuts would go into effect. If they do, he warned that they would affect every aspect of the agency’s function. “We have an amazingly broad portfolio. With a cut as was proposed in the president’s budget for fiscal year 2018, of approximately 20 percent, there would be no way to protect any part of that from some kind of effect,” he said. “[We] are doing our best every day to identify priorities, and we would apply those as one needs to. But with that deep a cut, there would be no area that we could actually keep from sustaining a significant downturn.”

For example, he explained, a smaller budget would mean that the NIH would likely fund fewer than one out of five grant submissions. “When we give a grant, we give it for a period of about four years, because that’s about the cycle time for science,” he noted. “[If] we have a sudden downturn in the budget, we still have to pay the grants that we had given in the year before, so the impact in that year of the sudden downturn would be even more dramatic than you might think if this was done simply on a year-by-year basis.”

However, Dr. Collins expressed optimism over the future of biomedical research despite the alarm caused by the proposed budget cuts. “We are at a particularly exciting moment, scientifically, in terms of the ability to make rapid progress,” he said. “We have a whole revolution that has appeared in terms of bringing together cancer and immunology to understand how it is that you can activate the immune system to go after cancer that it ought to be able to recognize but often the cancer has managed to evade that surveillance. And we are learning how to turn the immune system back on.”

Source: Washington Examiner, July 17, 2017.