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Rockefeller president Richard P. Lifton releases statement on proposed federal budget cuts to science

Rockefeller University President Richard P. Lifton today released the following statement on proposed cuts to federal funding for science:

Given the remarkable track record of American science, one can only read with alarm the White House budget proposal recommending an 18 percent reduction in NIH funding and similarly draconian cuts to other science-based federal agencies. The impact of such cuts would be unprecedented and catastrophic for our health, security, and economy.

U.S. leadership in the world economy has been built on innovation, particularly in science and technology. The proof of this is all around us. Transformative technologies coming from fundamental math, physics, and material science resulted in the revolution in computation that has transformed daily life and been decisive in protecting our nation. Similarly transformative discoveries in biomedical sciences have dramatically reduced mortality in infants, children, and adults, resulting in longer, healthier lives. In our lifetimes, we have witnessed global elimination of smallpox and broad protection from other devastating childhood diseases; death from heart attacks and strokes have been drastically reduced by scientific discoveries that resulted in smoking cessation and drugs that lower cholesterol and blood pressure; HIV infection has been transformed from a disease that was lethal within a few years to one compatible with normal life span, and a cure has been developed for chronic hepatitis C infection; dramatic advances have been made in cancer therapeutics, with targeted therapies and treatments that unleash patients’ immune systems to attack cancer cells. Science and technology in the U.S. has rightly been the envy of the world.

The key to our success has been continuous, sustained federal support of fundamental science, with the understanding that this new knowledge is the engine for development of new therapies that save lives and new technologies that improve our quality of life. Our system of peer review, by dispassionate experts in each field of research, of proposals to the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and other agencies ensures that public support goes to the most innovative projects without political consideration. This research primarily occurs in nonprofit academic institutions, conducted by exceptionally creative scientists who are driven by the desire to reveal new truths about the natural world. This model has been of undisputed value to the economy and health of the nation.

Because science projects are typically supported for 3 to 5 years, the cuts proposed by the White House would require cancellation of innovative new projects as well as the reduction or defunding of projects already underway, thus wasting years of effort that have already gone into research. Highly talented and motivated scientists would become unemployed with negative impact on our economy and health.

Some have suggested that taking the reduced funding primarily out of “indirect costs” would lessen the negative impact. Indirect costs are the facilities and administrative expenses necessary for the performance of the work. These include the cost of sustaining the infrastructure required to do the research—building maintenance, heating, cooling, water, and electricity in the facilities in which supported science is conducted, along with associated personnel, and the required administrative staff for payroll, purchasing, and research compliance. These expenses are carefully reviewed and negotiated and it is well documented that actual reimbursement is far less than the real cost of supporting government sponsored research, with universities strongly subsidizing these efforts. Remuneration of indirect costs are typically 30 to 35 percent of the total cost of a grant, with the administrative salaries constituting less than 15 percent of the total. Every business recognizes there are real costs of maintaining the infrastructure required for the conduct of its work. The notion that government-supported research would not be badly damaged by reducing reimbursement of these actual costs is fanciful.

Our strength in science since World War II has been built upon the understanding by Congress and the Executive branch that stable funding that keeps pace with inflation and grows commensurate with new scientific opportunities is a key to success. This continuity has provided assurance to supremely talented students that choosing a long course of challenging training—typically extending 10 years beyond college in biomedical science—to pursue their career is not folly. The NIH budget has been nearly flat for a decade, resulting in marked loss of purchasing power. This has already resulted in a very low likelihood of success of new grant applications, about 1 in 10 in most fields. The proposed unprecedented budget cuts would quickly drive prospective scientists to pursue other career opportunities that are far less likely to be whipsawed by a fickle government.

Importantly, the proposed deep cuts in research go in the opposite direction of other countries that seek to grow their economies. For example, China has recognized the value of basic research to its economic development and has averaged 18 percent annual growth in its funding, with governmental investment in R&D rapidly approaching our own. A large cut in the U.S. budget for science would quickly relinquish our leadership in this vital area.

If there is reason for optimism, it is that federal support of basic research has not historically been a partisan issue. Leadership on both sides of the aisle in both chambers of Congress are on record in their strong support of basic research because of its importance to the health and the economy of our nation; this has recently been reaffirmed with the passage of the 21st Century Cures Act with overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate. This investment recognizes that we have never been in a better position to make rapid progress on a range of devastating diseases from cancer and inherited diseases to autism in the young and Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases in the elderly.

Lastly, beyond its immediately tangible benefits, science is critical for a vibrant society, embracing a fundamental respect for truth and facts as revealed by rigorous evaluation of evidence. Without respect for the scientific method and objective analysis of data, we would have no basis for distinguishing the therapy that will benefit a loved one from one that causes harm, or for believing jets can fly us across the country, or that we can navigate our streets with guidance from satellites.

Public support of science and technology has been central to our nation’s prosperity, health and strength. Cuts to this engine of innovation are poorly conceived and will endanger our national interests.

Franklin Hoke

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