Cancer researchers and advocacy groups are denouncing President Trump’s proposed budget, warning that its 19 percent cut for the National Institutes of Health could cripple or kill former vice president Joe Biden’s cancer “moonshot” initiative and other important biomedical efforts.
“Forget about the moonshot. What about everything on the ground?” said George Demetri, an oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. “Fundamentally, this is so extreme that all I can think is that it’s pushing two orders of magnitude off the grid so that when people come back to less extreme positions it looks normal.”
Among people who work in the life sciences, Demetri said, “there is a stunned speechlessness.”
The budget blueprint released Thursday did not include specific numbers for individual NIH institutes, such as the National Cancer Institute. Still, the proposed cuts represent a sharp turnaround from the Obama administration as well as congressional supporters, who pressed for more NIH funding in recent years. The Obama White House in particular pushed the moonshot initiative to try to accelerate progress against the disease.
“From cancer moonshot to crater in the stroke of a pen,” tweeted Paul McGee, managing director of field communications for the American Cancer Society.
Many research advocates predict — and hope — that such large cuts will face opposition in Congress. Officials at academic medical centers and other research facilities already are contacting lawmakers to voice their disapproval.
“Thank goodness there are three branches of government and that the legislative branch has shown strong support for NIH,” said Jon Retzlaff, managing director of science policy and government affairs at the American Association for Cancer Research, which represents 37,000 researchers, health-care professionals and patient advocates.
“We hope this budget is dead before it even arrives,” he said. With scientists making significant gains in translating a better understanding of cancer biology into improved therapies, he added, “this is the time to be pushing on the accelerator and not putting on the parking brake.”
The 21st Century Cures Act, passed late last year, authorized $1.8 billion for the moonshot effort over seven years. The first $300 million has already been distributed.
For NIH overall, funding for the current fiscal year is still being debated, but its backers are pushing for a $2 billion increase. Trump’s proposal to cut $5.8 billion for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 “is a very concerning sign,” Retzlaff said.
Landon King, executive vice dean of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, noted that NIH had seen declining budgets, measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, for several years until Congress began ramping up the funding more recently.
“This is potentially extremely damaging not only for cancer research but also across a number of different areas,” he said. “The entire research enterprise will suffer.”
The recent increases in NIH funding have been a bipartisan effort, with strong support from Republicans, including Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt and Kansas Sen. Jerry Moran.
Elias Zerhouni, who was NIH director during the George W. Bush administration and now runs research and development at Sanofi, told Forbes that a 20 percent cut would be “catastrophic” because the agency only has 20 percent of its budget to give away in any given year. “Therefore, if you cut it by $6 billion, it means next year there will be no grants,” he said.
In an emotional talk Sunday at the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Biden called for additional progress in the effort against cancer and said that he and his wife, Jill, will continue to work on it. Their son, Beau, died of brain cancer in 2015.
“We can solve these problems,” the former vice president said. “These are technological problems. These are not cancer problems.”