Trump’s Magic Asterisk NIH Budget

Trump budget office hard at work

If you haven’t heard by now, Trump’s ersatz budget proposal would cut NIH spending by $6.3 billion dollars, over twenty percent (the number bandied about, $5.8 billion is wrong due to a slight of hand). Health and Human Services Secretary Price is absolutely silent on this (it’s quite possible no one told him the scope of the cuts–just look at how Secretary of State Rex “Wayne Tracker” Tillerson is cut out of the decision-making loop). But it’s worth noting that, like the healthcare proposal, this is largely about the politics of austerity (boldface added):

We must remember that the Republican healthcare proposal, such as it is, has everything yet nothing to do with healthcare. They really don’t care if lots of people can’t afford healthcare–that’s not what this is about at all….

What they do want is to lower federal spending–and this is where payback is a bitch. In 2011, Republicans, in an effort to ensure that Democrats wouldn’t be able to deficit spend the economy back to health*, forced Democrats to agree to the Budget Control Act. This has various spending and deficit caps. So?

If Republican want to pass huge tax cuts for the rich–and nothing gives Republicans HUMONGOUS BONERS like tax cuts for the rich–they need to cut spending. They can’t really cut Social Security, since their geriatric, Fox News-watching Uruk-hai base would run them over with their scooters (probably while screaming, “Keep the government out of my Social Security!”). They’re not going to cut military spending, so the only big ticket item left is gummint healthcare (they could always remove the mortgage interest tax deduction…STOP LAUGHING! STOP LAUGHING NOW!).

This is the ‘problem’ Republican Rep. Paul Ryan is trying to solve: how to cut enough stuff to give rich people and corporations BIGLY tax cuts.

Trump wants to increase military and internal security forces spending by over $60 billion dollars and not raise taxes, so he needs to cut other spending (while I’m writing Trump, don’t think for a moment that a lot of Republicans don’t want to go along with this). So what Trump and his minions have devised is a bullshit budget with lots of what Paul Krugman has called ‘magic asterisks’–bullshit that’s supposed to make the numbers add up somehow. Here’s the entire section about the NIH from the proposed Trump budget (boldface mine; pdf):

Reduces the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) spending relative to the 2017 annualized CR level by $5.8 billion to $25.9 billion. The Budget includes a major reorganization of NIH’s Institutes and Centers to help focus resources on the highest priority research and training activities, including: eliminating the Fogarty International Center; consolidating the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality within NIH; and other consolidations and structural changes across NIH organizations and activities. The Budget also reduces administrative costs and rebalance Federal contributions to research funding.

I think this means Il Trumpe would like NIH to be on the hook for $6.3 billion. Note that AHRQ is folded into NIH–whose entire budget would be $25.9 billion. But AHRQ, which Republicans hate (DEATH PANELZ! TYRANNY AGAINST DOCTORS!), has a budget of roughly $470 million per year. So we’re up to $6.3 billion, as Jonathan Gitlin notes.

What’s idiotic is that there’s no way ‘consolidations’ could possibly bring anywhere close to $6 billion. Are there entities that should be cut? Absolutely–the travel office comes to mind. But NIH already runs a tight ship, and to the extent it doesn’t, these are usually to comply with federal and congressional mandates. So this is a bullshit nothing statement–you’re not going to get close to $6 billion.

So what gets cut? Well, the entire intramural research budget (on-NIH campus research) is less than ten percent of the total; this includes things like PubMed, Genbank, and so on. Even if you eliminated all intramural research (including PubMed and Genbank), there is still a $3 billion dollar hole. One way to lower intramural costs–and that Republicans will never endorse, for obvious reasons–would be to move contractor researchers over to federal positions (Title 42, not the G-type positions; typically, an equivalently paid contractor researcher costs around thirty percent more than an equivalent Title 42 position). Increase federal payrolls while hurting campaign contributors? Right…

The extramural budget (off-NIH campus research, including universities) is around $24 billion. About $7 billion of that is indirect costs on grants. At many universities, including public ones, massively cutting overheads will crush their budgets to the point where tutions could rise one to two thousand dollars per year. Or you can cut the number and size of grant awards, which would damage research.

So this is a horrible proposal. It’s not serious, except that ‘Trump has heard bad things about the NIH‘–and I hope someone asks him what those bad things are. Remember: just like the healthcare proposal, this is all about achieving the long-standing Republican goals of cutting taxes on the rich and pumping up the military. That it could severely damage U.S. science doesn’t matter to those assholes.

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One Response to Trump’s Magic Asterisk NIH Budget

  1. Min says:

    “That it could severely damage U.S. science doesn’t matter to those assholes.”

    What do you mean? Of course it matters to them. They are anti-science. So much the better, from their point of view.

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