More On Bogus NIH Budgets

Last week, we discussed Il Trumpe’s magic asterisk NIH budget, which supposedly will find a way to cut over $6 billion in spending through what is essentially pixie dust:

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.

Former NIH director Harold Varmus explains further what massive cuts in NIH spending would mean (boldface mine):

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.

The N.I.H. awards multiyear grants and contracts, but receives annual appropriations that must be spent that year. This means that at the start of each year most of its dollars are already committed to recipients of awards from prior years. A budget cut of the size that is proposed would effectively prevent the awarding of new grants or the renewal of any that have reached the end of a multiyear commitment. Junior scientists, already struggling in a highly competitive atmosphere, may not get a chance to have an academic career. Senior investigators might need to lay off staff, disrupting research teams and leaving projects unfinished.

One thing the Trump ‘budget’ claims it will do is enact “other consolidations and structural changes across NIH organizations and activities”, but as Varmus notes, even if you eliminated all of the NIH administration–which is an impossibility–you would still be close to $5 billion short.

What scares me is that the people who wrote the Trump ‘budget’ probably do believe there are massive administrative costs (and, don’t forget, Trump has said the NIH is “terrible.”)

They really don’t know what they’re doing. All we can do is hope that enough Republicans in Congress recognize the economic importance of NIH spending.

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