Zachary Cox: Putting health funding last

Monday, March 27, 2017 - 4:06pm

President Donald Trump’s recent budget blueprint for the fiscal year 2018 calls for several major cuts to departments and organizations that used to garner bipartisan support, like the National Institutes of Health. These budget changes, particularly the $5.8 billion reduction of the NIH budget, hold severe ramifications for medical scientists who rely on the NIH to fund grants that help make groundbreaking research on deadly diseases such as cancer and HIV. 

The budget fails to justify the cuts to the NIH, except for mentioning it needs to “focus resources on the highest priority research.” This raises the question of what “highest priority research” refers to. Looking at a recent categorical spending report from 2016 gives one a sense of what current spending priorities may be. Among the most funded areas are cancer, clinical research and biotechnology. 

Could these priorities change? This question suggests two possible answers. The NIH could either drastically reduce funding for all programs, or it could cut smaller programs that benefit fewer people (but are still important, like the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, which seeks to “produce evidence to make health care safer, higher quality, more accessible, equitable, and affordable, and to work within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and with other partners to make sure that the evidence is understood and used”). The possibility of NIH funding being reduced in any of these research areas questions the priorities of this administration and whether these priorities truly put “America First,” as Trump's budget plan boasts.

Many such scientists do research here at the University of Michigan and would be significantly affected by a reduction in funding for their work. As the quantity and quality of research work falls due to the drop in funding, the world-renowned medical centers in the United States, like Michigan Medicine, will be left shorthanded in the battle against diseases like cancer. Moreover, a reduction in research funding would mean that not only would scientists have less money available for raw materials, but they would also have less available to pay staff and research assistants at both the undergraduate and graduate levels — a consequence that would have a ripple effect on the affordability of the academic experience at this school for students interested in pursuing extracurricular involvement in the biomedical sciences.

My parents, immunologists who study Transplantation Biology for the Department of Surgery at Michigan Medicine, employ a handful of students in their laboratory who assist with their research. A reduction in funding for them would translate to fewer educational opportunities in the medical sciences (if any at all) for these students, which would consequently stifle the advancement of important biomedical research. Grant funding also helps to pay their salaries, as well as the salaries of other scientists. The salaries of lab assistants and janitors are also, in part, made possible by the University’s grant funding. Cuts to this funding would result in significant salary reductions and, consequently, reductions in the quality of life enjoyed by my family and others who work in the medical sciences.

Some may argue it is not the responsibility of the government to provide funding for academic endeavors like the pursuit of scientific research, suggesting that such funding can be provided for by charities such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation or the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The issue with these charitable organizations being the sole resource for funding lies in the fact that the support they offer is more limited than the NIH, due to the comparatively limited financial pull they have. For example, a 2014 annual report for the Gates Foundation showed a total grant support of $3.86 million, spread across the areas of global development, global health, U.S. programing, global policy and advocacy, communications and other charitable programs.

Even within the overall NIH grant support budget, 80 percent goes to outside research. Funding is spread across several other microprograms, like the Accelerating Medicines Partnership (which studies Alzheimer’s Disease and type 2 diabetes). In contrast, the Gates Foundation has much more of a focus on global health issues (like malaria) than on private research. I believe it is the responsibility of the government to protect the people it serves, and I cannot see how limiting funding for life-saving medical research serves to protect the people of this country.

It is imperative that we do not allow this presidential administration to strip students and scientists of opportunities that contribute to the physical well-being of society at large. If this leadership insists on putting “America First,” it should focus on placing the health of its citizens among its “highest priorities.” 

Zachary Cox can be reached at coxz@umich.edu.

Correction: This article has been updated. When originally published March 27, 2017, it incorrectly stated that the columnist’s parents were immunologists who specialize in B cell transplantation, but his parents are immunologists who study Transplantation Biology. The article has been updated to reflect this information.