In his recently released budget plan, President Donald Trump has proposed a $5.8 billion cut in the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) budget for fiscal year 2018, reducing its total spending to $25.9 billion. That represents approximately a 20% drop from the agency’s 2017 spending on biomedical research, which totalled $31.7 billion. Leaders of scientific organizations across the country have vowed to fight the proposed cuts, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times.

“This is just a terrible proposal,” Jon Retzlaff, chief policy officer of the American Association for Cancer Research, told Times reporter Melissa Healy. “To see a proposal that would gut NIH by 20%––that would put us back to the year 2000 in terms of funding. We’re astonished and dumbfounded.”

The Trump administration said its budget plan “includes funds for … implementing the 21st Century Cures Act,” a law signed in December 2016 by Barack Obama that calls for $1.8 billion in 2018 to accelerate cancer research and $1.6 billion to fund treatments for brain diseases.

“It doesn’t add up,” Retzlaff said. “If they’re going to support that ‘cancer moonshot,’ it makes no sense to cut the overall budget by 20%.”

Retzlaff’s displeasure was echoed by Dr. Gary Gilliland, president and director of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, which received more NIH funding in 2017 than any other cancer center in the country.

“We are at an inflection point in our efforts to develop cures for cancer and related diseases,” Gilliland said. He called the proposed cuts “indefensible.”

Patients’ “lives are at stake,” he said. “We are fighting these cuts on behalf of our patients, our families, and the entire scientific community.”

Even scientists that have been critical of the NIH rallied to its defense, according to the Times article.

J. Craig Ventner, a genetics pioneer and chief executive of the J. Craig Venter Institute in La Jolla, California, said the proposed cuts would forfeit American primacy in a sector where the United States enjoys “absolutely dominant leadership in the world.”

Faced with bare-bones budgets, Ventner said, the NIH will put an end to high-risk research. Like a drug company whose new CEO cuts costs by axing research and development, the U.S. could soon see that its pipeline of innovative therapies has gone dry, he warned.

In keeping with Trump’s “American first” theme, his budget blueprint calls for eliminating the NIH’s Fogarty International Center, which coordinates the work of international scientists with American researchers.

That proposal drew criticism from the American Society for Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, which argued that cutting off U.S. researchers from their collaborators abroad was “short-sighted and dangerous.”

“These cuts will put the health of millions of Americans at home and abroad at risk,” the organization said in a statement. During the last two years, the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has worked with researchers in other countries to develop vaccines for the Ebola and Zika viruses.

Source: Los Angeles Times; March 16, 2017.

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