With a stroke of his pen on Tuesday, President Barack Obama will commit billions of dollars in federal funds to boost medical research, including money for Vice President Joe Biden’s “moonshot” to cure cancer.
But the budget increase for the National Institutes of Health authorized in the 21st Century Cures Act is smaller than hoped for by some conservative lawmakers, including Rep. Kevin Yoder and Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas and Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt. The three Republicans say the bill doesn’t go far enough, and they’ll keep working to build up the NIH’s budget.
“This will be a top priority in the next Congress,” Yoder said in an interview. “We have taken some baby steps here, but there’s a long way to go. I don’t think any of the work we’ve done is the moonshot we need. We’re on the launch pad, but we’re not in the moonshot yet.”
Yoder and other Republican advocates for NIH hope Trump will back their efforts, although it might be an uphill battle. Trump told right-wing radio host Michael Savage during the campaign that “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”
Obama has hailed the passage of the Cures Act, with rare bipartisan support, as an example “of the progress we can make when people from both parties work together.”
It includes $1 billion in grant money to help states fight the opioid epidemic, $1.8 billion for Biden’s “cancer moonshot,” and $4.8 billion for the National Institutes of Health over a decade.
That comes out to half a billion dollars a year for NIH, compared with about $2 billion per year allocated in earlier versions of the bill.
Adjusted for inflation, the institutes’ $32 billion annual budget is nearly 20 percent smaller than it was in 2003.
Blunt, who is chairman of a subcommittee responsible for setting the institutes’ budget, said that he’s been proud to lead efforts to increase resources for biomedical research at NIH and he’s glad to see that priority reflected in the Cures Act. But there is still more that needs to be done, he said.
“I will continue working to prioritize more resources for programs that will benefit the most families, like research to find cures for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease, and advancements in precision medicine,” the senator said in a statement.
More taxpayer investment in NIH could mean more grant money for research centers in lawmakers’ home states. This includes the University of Kansas Medical Center in Yoder’s district in suburban Kansas City, Mo., and Washington University’s Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center in St. Louis, which Blunt visited last year to highlight the need for federally funded medical research.
“If researchers don’t believe their government is committed to this, they could choose other fields of study, grants don’t get funded, their ideas don’t have a chance to be explored, and that slows down our objective, which is to cure these diseases,” Yoder said.
The congressman said he wants to see the NIH budget double to $60 billion within the next 10 years. That goal has met with some resistance from the right, however.
The conservative think tank Heritage Action urged lawmakers to vote against the Cures Act last month, complaining that NIH “has a long and ugly track record of wasting taxpayer dollars on useless research,” such as the musical preferences of monkeys.
“Instead of creating new funding streams to the tune of billions, Congress should exercise better oversight of NIH research and demand real results, not studies of whether or not glaciers are sexist,” Heritage Action said in its “critical vote alert.”
The question is whether Trump shares that view, or if he’s open to persuasion. In a rare public reference to NIH in last year’s radio interview with Savage, Trump seemed to be a skeptic of NIH.
Savage joked that Trump should appoint him head of NIH.
“I will make sure that America has real science and real medicine again in this country because I know the corruption,” Savage said. “I know how to clean it up and I know how to make real research work again.”
“I think that’s great,” Trump replied. “Well, you know you’d get common sense if that were the case, that I can tell you, because I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.”
Yoder said he was encouraged by recent comments Trump made in a video statement.
“He talked about investing in medical research,” Yoder said. “And as he’s looking at infrastructure investment, this is investing in infrastructure of our country in a whole other way.”