President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget requests a 22 percent funding cut for the National Institutes of Health and proposes to cap indirect costs for all extramural grants at 10 percent of the total cost.
President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget request proposes a 22 percent decrease in funding for the National Institutes of Health below the fiscal year 2017 enacted level. The deep proposed cuts stand in stark contrast to appropriations enacted in May that provided the biomedical research agency with a 6.2 percent increase to $33.3 billion. The amount of funding directed towards research project grants in fiscal year 2018 would be at its lowest level in 10 years.
The chart below depicts proposed changes to five NIH institutes that fund a significant amount of physical sciences research. More detailed budget information is available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker, and the full NIH budget document is available here.
The proposal includes $496 million provided by the 21st Century Cures Act, which President Obama signed into law last December. The law sets aside $4.8 billion for NIH over a 10-year period. In fiscal year 2018, $300 million of these funds are for the Beau Biden Cancer Moonshot Initiative which “aims to accelerate progress in cancer research and breakdown barriers by enhancing data access and facilitating collaborations,” $100 million for the Precision Medicine Initiative, $86 million for the BRAIN Initiative that “seeks to understand how individual cells and the neural circuits they form interact in time and space,” and $10 million for a new regenerative medicine project that will support clinical research using adult stem cells.
NIH would focus around four updated priority themes to guide strategic direction:
- Fundamental Science Enhanced by Technological Advances
- Treatments and Cures
- Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, and
- Enhancing Stewardship.
As part of the Enhancing Stewardship theme, NIH plans to build upon recent efforts to increase the rigor, reproducibility, and accessibility of scientific research. Specifically, NIH plans to extend its Rigor and Reproducibility Policy to its institutional training grants and fellowships, continue its ongoing collaboration with scientific journal editors to enhance rigor and reproducibility in published research, as well as increasing data accessibility and sharing. It would also continue to provide opportunities for new and early stage investigators through programs like the Early Career Review Program and the NIH Director’s New Innovator Award and will further implement the Next Generation of Researchers Initiative established by the 21st Century Cures Act.
The request proposes that $14.2 billion fund 33,403 research project grants with an estimated success rate for competing awards dropping to 13.7 percent from the 19.2 percent level in fiscal year 2016. While the total number of funded research grants will only slightly decrease from 2016 levels, the request proposes cost-savings be made through a cap on indirect costs.
Overhead costs would be capped at 10 percent
In a proposal that could have significant consequences for institutions that rely on NIH support, the administration calls for a 10 percent cap on indirect or “overhead” cost rates. The proposal states that setting a flat rate will “release grantees from the costly and time-consuming indirect rate setting process and reporting requirements” while “mitigat[ing] the risk for fraud.” Indirect costs typically fund the operation of lab facilities and contribute to administration and program support expenses. The request states that the average NIH indirect cost rate is around 28 percent, although the rate varies widely among universities and other grantees depending on geography, the type of research conducted, and the nature of the institution conducting the research.
The administration argues that “other entities, including private foundations and payers, spend a much higher portion of their grants on direct science.” Universities claim that the comparison between the two overhead rates is misleading. During an appropriations hearing held in May, NIH Director Francis Collins commented on the disparity between overhead cost rates, saying,
Presidents of universities that do a lot of research would tell you that they can afford to absorb the cost of taking on grants from foundations of this sort because it’s a small proportion of their budget. But if they were asked to do that with the majority, which tends to be, if it's biomedical research, the NIH, many of them would not be able to continue the effort and they would need to drop out, particularly public universities that don’t have large endowments.
Collins added that many of the indirect costs that universities currently pay are a result of “bureaucracy that we put down upon them,” and that now might be an opportunity “to revisit a lot of the regulations that we have asked them to put forward.”
The House Science Committee also recently held a hearing to examine the role of indirect costs in federally funded research, but committee members stopped short of supporting the specific cuts proposed by the administration. Many members commented on the importance of overhead costs, including Research and Technology Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Comstock (R-VA), who said that “there is no question that there are legitimate and necessary overhead costs to conducting the best research in the world.”
- Fogarty International Center: Eliminates the Fogarty International Center, which works to increase biomedical research capacity in developing countries, among other missions.
- IDeA program: Sets a goal to establish a new innovation accelerator in each of the four Institutional Development Award (IDeA) regions to foster “entrepreneurial environments.”
- Science Education Partnership Award program: Moves the SEPA program from the Office of the Director to the National Institute of General Medical Sciences.
- Peer review: Notes that NIH plans to “design and test measures of peer review quality and efficiency.”
- Funding transparency: Notes that NIH plans to “make information about each [Institute or Center’s] funding decisions for each fiscal year more publicly available.”
- Non-invasive imaging technologies: Sets a goal to develop prototypes for four imaging technologies that are based on “adaptive optics in animal models.”
- Electron microscopy: Identfies research into advanced imaging techniques such as cryo-electron microscopy for development of “more targeted and effective drugs” as a fundamental science priority for fiscal year 2018.
- Neurotechnologies: Sets a goal to develop four new neurotechnologies for “stimulating/recording in the brain to enable basic studies of neural activity at the cellular level.”
- Nano-enabled immunotherapy: Sets a goal to optimize the properties of 3 nanoformulations for “effective delivery and antigen-specific response in immune cells.”