CLSA featured in The San Diego Union-Tribune: San Diego researchers condemn Trump’s proposed $5.8B NIH funding cut
By Bradley J. Fikes and Gary Robbins | The San Diego Union-Tribune
March 16, 2017
San Diego’s huge bioscience industry expressed alarm Thursday about President Donald Trump’s proposed $5.8 billion or 18 percent cut in the National Institutes of Health funding.
The NIH is the largest single public underwriter of biomedical research in the US. The proposed cut is unprecedented in recent decades, in which NIH budgets have soared. From $11.3 billion in 1995, the NIH budget rose to $27.2 billion in 2003 and current annualized funding of $31.7 billion.
Researchers have depended on that growing budget, especially in San Diego County. Last year the NIH provided about $850 million to more than 90 institutes in San Diego County.
The biggest recipient was UC San Diego, which received $409 million to study and treat everything from cancer and heart disease to lupus and schizophrenia. The Scripps Research Institute received $213.7 million.
There’s also some good news for those depending on the biomedical bureaucracy for product approval.
The budget increases from $1 billion to $2 billion the money charged to those seeking product approval at the Food and Drug Administration agency separate from the NIH. Companies generally are willing to pay more for a faster response.
But that user-fee increase is far overshadowed by the NIH reduction, which does not take inflation into account.
The reduction is “preposterous,” said Eric Topol, M.D., a geneticist and chief academic officer of Scripps Health.
“It’s more than devastating,” Topol said. “And it comes at a momentous time, when biomedical research is making so much progress in diagnosing and treating human health. We’re well into the genomic era, where we are developing new tools that represent progress. Now, the rug is being pulled out from under us.”
Last year, the NIH awarded Topol a $207 million grant to co-lead an effort to enroll 1 million Americans in a massive health study, which includes sequencing their genomes.
Topol is responsible for 350,000 of those Americans under the aegis of the Scripps Translational Science Institute, which is a joint venture of Scripps Health and The Scripps Research Institute.
“In a world facing unprecedented health challenges, from the rise in the numbers of people with Alzheimer’s to the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs, now is the time to to prioritize foundational scientific research, not reduce funding,” Blackburn said. “We are in a golden age of science, thanks to the groundbreaking research that’s come before. To drastically reduce funding now is to squander that legacy and to undermine the legacy we leave future generations.”
The cut is “untenable” for California’s life science industry, said Joe Panetta, president and CEO of the San Diego-based trade group Biocom, which is active throughout the state.
“It would take NIH funding back a dozen years or more,” Panetta said.
“$3.6 billion in NIH funding comes to CA each year. A cut of $720 million would be disastrous. Biocom will work with our 850 members and the 55 representatives of the CA delegation in Congress to persuade Republican leaders that the loss of this funding would threaten America’s leading position in the world in biomedical discovery and innovation, as well as destroy a very lucrative job market in scientific discovery.”
Researcher Jeanne Loring, who heads TSRI’s regenerative medicine program, said reducing NIH funding would cause a chain reaction of lowered scientific output and business activity.
“We’re going to feel it very strongly here,” said Loring, who has one NIH grant and has been considering applying for more.
“The reason we have economic development in biotech is because of our really strong pipeline (of products) from academic research,” Loring said. “And biotech is funded by the government.”
For example, TSRI stands to profit if a multiple sclerosis drug developed by a spinoff company reaches the market. The drug, ozanimod, benefited from federally funded research. TRSRI licensed it to San Diego’s Receptos.
Ozanimod was promising enough that pharma company Celgene paid $7.3 billion to buy Receptos in 2015.
Skepticism on spending
Against those successes, critics of government waste point to examples of seemingly marginal or useless federal spending. One, Senator James Lankford, an Oklahoma, recently published examples of such “federal fumbles.”
NIH research listed in it included spending more than $10 million to learn that stress plays a role in illegal drug use.
“This is yet another federal endeavor to duplicate existing efforts in the private sector and academia,” the Lankford report stated. “the funding could have been used to actually help treat participants’ drug issues, teach them how to cope with stress, and help them find opportunities to work and to provide for themselves.”
This and other examples of supposed misspending by the NIH total far less than the cut sought. But they illustrate a belief in Congress that much federal spending is for low-priority work that can be eliminated without causing major problems.
If the NIH reductions go through, it could result in cuts to already awarded NIH grants, pitching the carefully planned budgets of researchers and their laboratories into chaos.
In that case, biomedical scientists may be reduced to fighting over which research programs get cut to keep the others funded.
“That’s sort of like death panels for biotechnology research,” Loring said.
“Probably there could be some thinning of programs, but that would have to be a judgment call. I would hope the HHS would get scientists’ input … It’s going to be a nightmare.”
Directly contacting congressmembers and senators may be the best way to avoid that fate, Loring said.
Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican congressman from Vista, has shown signs of potential flexibility of late, she said.
Sara Radcliffe, President & CEO of the California Life Sciences Association, said the proposed NIH would have a “chilling effect on lifesaving R&D to improve patient care.” The trade association has offices in San Diego, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Sacramento and Washington, D.C.
“The NIH has been chronically underfunded for years, and such a cut, compounded by mandatory sequestration in prior fiscal years, would put America at risk of ceding our global leadership in biomedical research and innovation,” Radcliffe said by email.
“Now is not the time to reduce that investment, which is critical to the foundation and success of San Diego and California’s biomedical R&D ecosystem,” she said. “CLSA and our broad membership will continue to work with our California congressional delegation to guard against these harmful NIH cuts, that could put lifesaving cures and R&D at risk.”