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Will Trump slash public funding for scientific research?

Maybe, maybe not

Mark O. Hatfield Clinical Research Center on the National Institutes of Health Bethesda, Maryland campus
NIH/Wikimedia Commons

“I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible,” President-elect Donald Trump told conservative radio host Michael Savage last year, using the acronym for the National Institutes of Health. The NIH is the federal agency that shelled out $32 billion for biomedical research in fiscal year 2016. This federal money is a key source of funding for academic research — on anything from cancer to Alzheimer's.

But just because Trump thinks the NIH is terrible doesn’t mean he won’t fund it, if his comments to Scientific American are any guide. He said in September that “there are increasing demands to curtail spending and to balance the federal budget, we must make the commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare and other areas that will make the lives of Americans better, safer and more prosperous.” On its part, the NIH says it’s ready for the transition. “NIH has a long history of bi-partisan support and stands ready to work with the new Administration to improve people's health and reduce the burden of disease through biomedical research,” Amanda Fine, a PR officer for the NIH, wrote in an email to The Verge.

So — is a Trump presidency good news or bad news for the nation’s most important sources of research funding?

“Trump has been a bit of a black box on that issue,” says Jennifer Zeitzer, the director of legislative relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. “The good news is we don’t know what it means for public funding and the bad news is we don’t know what it means for public funding.”

NIH funds are critical for work around the country. Academic institutions in the US rely heavily on federal dollars for running their labs, buying equipment, processing samples, and training the next generation of scientists. “The entire business of the US academic biomedical research enterprise is based on federal dollars. All of it,” says Ethan Weiss, an associate professor of medicine at University of California, San Francisco. “Without that, it would collapse.”

Researchers all over the US depend on these grants to make a living. Jacquelyn Gill, an assistant professor of paleoecology and plant ecology at the University of Maine, recently received a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, another federal agency, that will fund her research for the next three years. Part of that money will go into her own salary and into the salary for undergraduates and post-doctoral researchers who work at her lab. Cutting public funding means cutting jobs, and that makes it hard to attract young people into scientific research.

“I’m getting my PhD and I want to start my own lab eventually,” says Sarah Hengel, who’s doing breast cancer research at the University of Iowa, in a lab that partially runs on NIH dollars. “It’s a little scary when it’s uncertain what the future will be like. I would like to have a job. I would like to continue to work.”

NIH and NSF funding has been fluctuating in the past few years. The NIH lost 22 percent of its capacity to fund research due to budget cuts, sequestration, and inflation from 2003 to 2015, according to Zeitzer, at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. And federal funding from government agencies like the NSF, the Department of Agriculture, and Health and Human Services has fallen by 17 percent from 2010 to 2014, when factoring in inflation. That means that, for a while now, researchers have looked at alternative sources of funding, including private foundations, NGOs, and private donors.

The problem with private funding is that it’s usually not as big; it also doesn’t allow scientists to focus on that long-term, basic, fundamental research that doesn’t give a return on investment quickly, but is key to finding cures for diseases. Weiss, at the University of California, San Francisco, used HIV as an example. HIV/AIDS went from being a death sentence in the 1980s to a chronic but relatively manageable disease because of decades of prior research into the basic biology of viruses and the workings of DNA. “That didn’t happen in the dark,” Weiss says. “Fundamental biology is important because you never know when you might need it.”

Climate scientists are the most concerned, since Trump has denied man-made climate change exists. The current NSF budget is already a fraction of the NIH’s — $7.46 billion. And with Trump’s decision to appoint a climate skeptic to lead the Environmental Protection Agency transition, climate scientists fear that public funding for their research will be slashed. “We don’t expect a lot of support for climate initiatives,” says Joshua Adam Drew, a professor at the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Biology at Columbia University. “I hope I’m wrong and that I’m just being depressed about the future, but I don’t see there being a large... support for an increased federal budget for research.”

Zeitzer, at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, says it’s too early to know. Congress could approve spending bills before Christmas; those bills include raising the NIH budget to $34.1 billion and the NSF budget to $7.51 billion in 2017. That would secure public funding for the first year of Trump’s presidency. What would happen for the year 2018 and onward, however, is anyone’s guess. And that uncertainty is what’s most concerning to some. “It’s a complete and whole black hole. We don’t have any idea,” Weiss says. “I don’t think Trump has give a lot of thought to it. And maybe that’s a good thing, maybe the administration will be distracted with other things and things will stay relatively status quo.”