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What White House Budget Cuts Could Mean for the Future of Scientific Research

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What White House Budget Cuts Could Mean for the Future of Scientific Research

Apr 21, 2017

The White House has proposed a major budget cut in government agencies that fund scientific research, including the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Bryan Jones, Ph.D., a scientist at the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah, says the mere idea keeps him up at night. “I’m terrified,” he says. “The prospect of a 20 percent cut to the budget would be devastating to science and careers.” He explains why supporting scientific research is an investment in our future.

Episode Transcript

Interviewer: This year, the White House has proposed to cut the national budget for Science and Technology Research by up to 20%. We'll talk about what that could mean to science and the scientists, up next on The Scope.

Announcer: Examining the latest research and telling you about the latest breakthroughs. The Science and Research Show is on The Scope.

Interviewer: I'm talking to Dr. Bryan Jones, an investigator at the Moran Eye Center at the University of Utah. Dr. Jones, are you worried?

Dr. Jones: I'm terrified actually.

Interviewer: Yeah.

Dr. Jones: We've gone through a period of almost two decades of benign neglect in science which is fine for most scientists. We sort of want to be left alone, want to be allowed to do our work. The problem is benign neglect has sort of caught up with us, and we're at the point now where science is dramatically underfunded. And the prospect of another 20% cut to the budget will be devastating to science and careers.

Interviewer: So this is still hypothetical. We'll have to see what comes down the line. But what could that mean for you in your research?

Dr. Jones: The problem is, if the 20% budget cut goes into effect at the National Institute of Health, NIH will likely award no new awards next year. They will all have to service their existing obligations. And this means the research that we do into blinding disease will be delayed or will, in a worst case scenario, never happen.

Interviewer: And, of course, this would go beyond impacting your research theoretically. It would have really broad implications.

Dr. Jones: What a lot of people don't realize is how limited the funding is for a lot of labs. So I was at Google last year talking with a gentleman named Rob Cook from Pixar. Rob is famous for developing the RenderMan software package. And we were talking about where science grants come from. And so he asked me to sort of explain to him how a science grant came about and what kind of money we were talking about and explain to him that the basic sort of unit of research funding is the RO1 mechanism. And for a modular RO1 grant, that's about $250,000 a year.

And he looked at me and he says, "Okay, so the $250,000 is for your salary, right?" And I said, "No. It's for my salary and for post-doctoral salary, and graduate students salary and undergraduates, and technicians, and annual costs and lab materials, and equipment, and computers, and everything required to run the grant for a year." And he looked incredulous. And he furrowed his brow and he says, "But the $250,000 is for your salary, right?"

And I said, "Well, yeah, and everything else that we just talked about." And he couldn't believe it. He slapped his hand on the table and he said, "That's impossible. How do you get biomedical work done on margins that thin?"

Interviewer: Yeah, budgets for internet and technology are way, way higher.

Dr. Jones: Yeah, yeah. So Facebook employees are making $140,000, $150,000 just right out of college. So people don't realize that the amount of time spent training, learning highly skilled technologies, to push technology forward at the bleeding edge takes years. And we don't actually make that much money doing it. So any sort of budget cut already is actually devastating.

Interviewer: Well, and I wonder if that hones in on part of the problem, that science and scientific research is really a black box to a lot of people. And I think maybe some people don't really understand that if you invest in something today, you're not going to get any answer tomorrow, it takes time.

Dr. Jones: Right, right. So the classic case here in Utah is Dr. Mario Capecchi, our noble laureate here at the University of Utah. Dr. Capecchi started working back in the '70s and '80s on this transgenic technology. This ability to take a gene from one organism and insert it to another organism. And he reasoned that he knew a little bit about the chemistry of DNA and he thought it should be possible to take a human gene and insert it into a mouse.

And he got a lot of pushback at the time, but it turned out that fundamental technology has become a cornerstone of biomedical research and has changed the world forever. And at the time, he had no concept of where that was going to go. And only with the passage of decades would we realize how valuable that technology has actually become. Science has a way of doing this. We have to invest in sort of the basics. We have to invest in things that seem a little wacky or seem a little far-out before we actually understand what the value of these things is.

Interviewer: When it comes to the budget though, I wonder if it's kind of like choosing your favorite child? If you're investing more in science, does that mean you're taking away money from the arts or something else? How can you even make those decisions or justify them?

Dr. Jones: Reality is the amount of money that we spend on defense in this country is larger than most other nations on the planet combined. So if you look at the F35 program, which is our joint strike fighter program, that program is estimated to cost of about $1.35 trillion over the life in that program. That amount of money would fund the National Institute of Health, the program that the department, the agency that does all the Alzheimer's, all the diabetes, all the heart disease, all the blindness research, all the epilepsy research, all the cancer research in this country. That amount of money would fund the National Institutes of Health for 27 years. Fundamentally, an entire generation of bioscientists.

And if we want to fund all the rest of the science in this country, the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, that amount of money would fund all of those agencies for 22 years.

So literally, an entire generation of scientists and engineers in this country could be educated and allowed to do their jobs for the cost of a single weapons system. I just don't think it's a valid argument to say that there's not enough money to fund the arts and the sciences. We could literally double the National Institute of Health Budget for very little effort.

Announcer: Interesting, informative, and all in the name of better health. This is The Scope Health Sciences Radio.