While the Trump administration’s threatened budget cuts for the National Institutes of Health and other science-funding agencies didn’t come to pass this year, make no mistake: the U.S. is well on its way toward a biomedical funding crisis.
There are, of course, continuing signals from the White House that science spending is a good thing to cut. The budget sent to Congress for the fiscal year 2018 includes an 18 percent cut for NIH, as well as significant cuts for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Environmental Protection Agency. Whether or not those cuts materialize in the official budget—a recommendation to cut the NIH budget for the current fiscal year was rejected by Congress—the mere threat of budget slashing is enough to destabilize the scientific field.
Some proponents of major funding cuts suggest they only affect scientists toiling at the bench in academia. So what if yet another fly species doesn’t get its genome sequenced? But people who understand the biomedical industry realize that any significant budget reduction creates major ripple effects. Consider this: in the past couple of decades, more and more pharmaceutical companies have outsourced early-stage drug discovery work. Instead, these projects are now largely being done in academia or at NIH-funded startups. Once a potential drug has been validated enough to merit clinical trials, pharma companies license it and manage the rest of the development process. A recent study found that 4,400 patents linked to NIH-funded grants were associated with therapeutics approved by the FDA. Without academic scientists, then, the pipeline of new drugs in this country withers.
Of course, any number of promising healthcare innovations started out with NIH funding. CRISPR, the gene-editing technology that has taken the scientific community by storm, was discovered at academic institutions largely funded by research grants. Some of the latest breakthroughs in cancer treatment emerged at clinical centers supported through grants. One could spend all day listing ways that government research funding has improved our healthcare and lives, and there would still be plenty left out.
But if lawmakers overturn next year’s devastating budget recommendation, it would not be enough. Concern that cuts will happen is already stalling progress, and that’s something we all should take seriously. Scientific discoveries occur in a delicate financial ecosystem of federal and philanthropic funding, venture capital, IP licensing by major pharma and biotech companies, and other sources. If it looks like the NIH budget will be slashed next year, companies that sell to scientists may not allocate resources to develop a new instrument because they worry no one will be able to afford it. Venture capital companies looking to make their next big investment may choose to pass up on science and put their chips on a different sort of tech innovation instead.
Longer term, the scariest risk of unstable scientific funding is a loss of brainpower. Ambitious, smart students who would have been interested in scientific careers may turn to other fields to avoid getting caught up in a hopeless fight for grants. Scientists who want to make major breakthroughs will follow the money—sometimes to countries that place a higher priority on biomedical research. American leadership in science innovation would have trouble surviving that kind of brain drain.
One reason the United States has accomplished so many important scientific advances is that research funding has been a priority for decades. If science budgets rise and fall on a whim, we risk the steady jobs, discoveries, and innovations that have been fueled by the robust success of American biomedicine.