Columns, Opinions

Liang ’19: Trump’s NIH cuts will harm undergraduate research

By
staff columnist
Sunday, March 19, 2017

Do you do research on campus? Would you like to do research on campus? Congratulations — it just got a bit harder.

I have a lot of complaints about President Trump’s new budget. For the sake of perspective, let’s skip the cuts to Sesame Street, NASA’s Office of Education, the Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Human Services and the National Endowment for the Arts, among many others. This column would be too long with cries of dismay, and I’m sure there’s no point in hammering the same ideas to the many liberals on campus.

For now, let’s talk about the National Institutes of Health.

The NIH provides grants to thousands of institutions nationwide to support biomedical research, and it also runs the largest basic science research center in the world from its headquarters in Bethesda, Maryland. The current budget plan cuts nearly 20 percent of the NIH’s $30 billion annual budget, specifically slashing all funding for the Fogarty International Center, which is designed to build relationships between health research facilities in the United States and abroad. Apparently “America First” doesn’t consider the fact that we could learn something from other countries. Even scarier are the nonspecific uses of “reform” and “major reorganization” used when discussing the new budget. Trump’s policies have been volatile and unpredictable in the past ­— and now a major established (and overall successful) research institution is at risk.

It’s important to consider the conservative response to these kinds of cuts; many believe that the state should have no role in fields that could become politicized, science and education included. It’s a reasonable defense — no one wants television turned into propaganda or controversial science abused. And new technologies like genetic modification or stem cells merit new bioethical discussions regarding the use of public funds. But basic science (we’re talking pipettes, cell plates and centrifuging) funded by the NIH has traditionally received bipartisan support for developing health innovation since its founding in 1870 to fight epidemics of cholera and yellow fever. Now we’ve seen the respect the Oval Office has for scientific research, or the lack thereof.

Trump’s “America First” policy may look good on paper for some who are concerned about ballooning government spending, but the effects of these cuts to science and health innovation will reverberate for a very long time, regardless of the political party in control. The United States risks losing ground both in scientific talent and infrastructure; coupled with tighter immigration and overall defunding, the nature of research universities and other institutions is already changing for the worse. Over 80 Nobel prizes have been awarded to NIH-funded researchers, but this science took decades of sustained funding. Imagine how four years of interrupted, decreased support will affect research in the long run.

This country’s higher education is built on the concept of the collegiate research university; Trump’s cuts to the NIH will trickle down at every level. Journalists are already predicting a “lost generation in American research” if these cuts are enacted. Our current college population will be that generation. The NIH funds grants that support students who don’t get Undergraduate Teaching and Research Award funding for their summer research in Providence. During the last fiscal year alone, Brown was awarded 187 NIH grants totaling $74,222,324, including funding for the lab I work in. Losing the proposed 20 percent of those funds would have dramatic effects here at Brown; now think of all the smaller recipients who can’t replace that deficit with private funding. We’re the (relatively) lucky ones.

These issues are indicative of a larger problem that seems to be gripping many people distrusting of the “deep state,” and of government in general. Our current administration is expecting the impossible: American exceptionalism without support for any nonmilitary program that could shape it. With a wall to keep out the next generation of scientists who immigrate here and research programs without funding, does this country really believe it can continue its cultural and scientific dominance? Private funding may allow biomedical research in this country to continue to progress. But we shouldn’t have to rely on the generosity of the Zuckerbergs or the Gates family to ensure continued, sustained health research in the United States, especially for smaller institutions that are overlooked by large, private financiers. We shouldn’t have to argue for every dollar that, in the long run, will prevent outbreaks and support economic, social and technological prosperity. We shouldn’t have to deal with this nonsense.

If public funding allows, Mark Liang ’19 can be reached at mark_liang@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.