Proposed drastic cuts to U.S. science agencies and departments by President Donald Trump have life science researchers on edge about the fate of current and future projects, not to mention the nation’s standing in the scientific community.
Trump’s executive order banning immigration from six predominantly-Muslim countries and all international refugees, as well as stepped up deportations of undocumented immigrants, also have researchers fearful that the U.S. will be unable to attract gifted scientists from abroad, limiting its talent pool.
Uncertainty pervades the scientific community, many said. “People are very much watching and waiting,’ said Kevin McCormack, senior director, public communications and patient advocate outreach at California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. “There is a lot of concern about what could happen.”
Trying to be aware of what is happening
In a draft federal budget released in March, Trump proposed slashing funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the country’s medical research agency, by 18 percent to $25.9 billion, according to published reports. The document also calls for a reorganization of the NIH’s 27 institutes, including the elimination of the smallest, the Fogarty International Center. About 10 percent of the NIH’s $30 billion budget goes to its own studies; more than 80 percent funds about 300 000 outside researchers.
At the end of March, the White House also proposed an immediate $1.2 billion cut to the NIH for the fiscal year ending in October. Most of the money would come from research-grant funding, according to published reports. The reductions also would eliminate $50 million from the Institutional Development Award (IDeA) program, which is designed to distribute biomedical research more broadly across the U.S.
“I think in general we are trying to be very aware of what is happening and keeping in touch with our representatives so our concerns can be expressed in Washington,” added Kathryn Rizzo, a manager within the business development group at Protein Sciences Corporation in Meriden, Connecticut. The company submits proposals to sell its flu vaccines to the federal government and has received research funding from the NIH.
Eliminates all new research initiatives
Trump’s budget for NIH effectively eliminates all new research initiatives and the renewal of productive projects, according to Dr. Lawrence Rizzolo, PhD, FARVO, a professor of surgery/ ophthalmology at Yale University in Connecticut, because 80 percent of the budget goes to fulfill existing multi-year projects.
“The proposed 20 percent cut leaves no money for renewing successful contracts, funding new investigators, or allowing productive investigators to develop new lines of research,” Rizzolo said.
Rizzolo is pursuing treatments for age-related macular degeneration using stem cells, including using stem cells to create retinas in dishes and developing tissues for transplant into animal models. “It’s all about trying to find cures for macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosa,” noted Rizzolo. While his work has been funded in the past by a state grant and money from the U.S. Department of Defense, he had hoped to apply this year for an NIH grant.
Turning to foreign investors
Since Congress already has restrictions on funding stem cell research, states have been forced to step in and provide much of the research money, but now state budgets are being squeezed as well, Rizzolo said. “In Connecticut, for example, the state is willing, but unable, to maintain its past support.” Researchers are turning to foreign investors to support the Stem Cell Research Centers that have been established, he noted.
A blow to U.S. research
Restrictions on the ability of international scientists to visit or work in the U.S. also has researchers on edge. In response to Trump’s executive order on immigration, more than 5 000 scientists, including some from Sweden, Norway and the U.S., pledged not to attend any conferences in the U.S. until the ban is lifted.
Already there have been stories in the news about people who are authorized to work in the U.S. being detained or not being permitted to re-enter the country after traveling abroad. “Some scientists working in the U.S. could move overseas, but that would be a blow to U.S. research,” said McCormack. “There are quite a few people who are citizens now, who were born abroad, looking at the biotech industry and the health care industry in California. But they don’t want to risk leaving the country; to many people, that is a real source of concern, concern that they might not be able to come back if they go abroad to visit family. Or people may be uncomfortable coming to the U.S. We’re talking about some of the smartest people, the best of the bunch. They wouldn’t be short of opportunities, so they may decide to go to countries where there isn’t this type of suspicion.”
Applications from foreign students are decreasing
Some of Yale’s post-doctoral students and faculty members from abroad are afraid to visit their families, because they may not be let back in to the country, continued Rizzolo said. “Even though the proposed bans may not apply to them, they do not trust the U.S. government,” he said. “Applications from foreign students are decreasing. U.S. researchers rely on foreign students, because U.S. students do not wish to enter science as a career.”
With tools like the Internet and Skype, scientists can figure out ways to collaborate remotely, Rizzolo said. “But there is nothing like working face-to-face and working out new technology,” he continued. “Scientists just want to get their work done, they don’t care about political boundaries.”
The core of science is being questioned
Like many business entities worldwide, Business Sweden is monitoring the developments in America, but so far, nothing has impacted Swedish initiatives, said Björn Olofsson, trade commissioner with Business Sweden. “The U.S. is of major importance to Swedish and Nordic life science companies in terms of potential collaborations and as an offset market. Everyone is talking about U.S. markets; it is high up on everyone’s minds,” added Olofsson. “Even though the news may be less positive, it is still news. People don’t like uncertainly, but gradually, if progress is made, people will see it as positive.”
Members of U.S. Congress also are alarmed at the severity and extent of the proposed cuts and what they could mean to the future of American science. U.S. Representative Elizabeth Esty, a Democrat from Connecticut who serves on the House of Representatives’ Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said political affiliations should not play a role in whether or not to support science.
“This is not a Democrat versus Republican concern; this is a particular administration that has been particularly and disturbingly untethered to facts,” Esty said. “They have questioned whether there may be such a thing as a truth. That is particularly disturbing to scientists, since it is at their core to discover and explore fundamental truths.”
Esty said she is building whatever coalitions in Congress she can to prevent science from being neglected. “We have been forced by language and proposals to take action,” she said. “The overall dramatic cuts proposed for the NIH are shocking and wrongheaded. In every hearing, I have asked, ‘What is the importance of basic science research to the competitiveness of the country? Everyone, corporations, colleges, say it is critical. Trump has promised to make jobs, but that is not possible without robust, basic scientific research. Many of these programs are considered vital to the country’s security and competitiveness.”
The talent pool is at risk
At least in the state of Connecticut, work is being done on adult stem cell lines, which is less controversial, and technological advances allow adult stem cells to be separated from embryonic ones, Esty noted.
While she can understand why some scientists are refusing to travel to the U.S., Esty said the country must not dismiss signals that the U.S. is becoming an unpopular destination. “The biggest competition in the world is the one for talent,” she said. “Global talent goes where the equipment and funding are. The talent pool is the most important thing. If people can’t be certain that funding will be continuing, they will go elsewhere.”
Rizzolo agreed. “I respect their decision, but I would hope that they would continue to support their U.S. colleagues, as we fight these changes [in travel regulations],” he said.
Protect our interests
One proposal from the Trump administration generating some interest has to do with speeding up the approval process for pharmaceuticals through the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), but no one is clear on what that means, said McCormack. “The situation is interesting,” he said. “There could be a more efficient regulatory process. When you have this level of uncertainty, though, you have no idea what direction things will go. One thing we don’t want is safeguards removed. We want to make sure we create a smarter, more efficient system, but one that makes safety a prime concern.”
The potential threats to the research community have turned some scientists into activists. “A lot of people are upset,” Rizzolo said. “They [the new administration] has woken a sleeping giant. Scientists are saying, `We’re not the type of people to go out and march, but we have to go out and march.` Scientists are by nature optimists and many of them belong to community action groups, added Rizzolo. A science march on Washington, DC, in fact, was planned for Earth Day.
Any administration would be remiss to neglect science, since that is a pivotal aspect that protects the U.S. as a world leader, noted Rizzo. “We will continue to wait and be vigilant so we continue to protect our interests and continue to do our work of making better vaccines and saving lives. We want to continue to make the next generation of vaccines.”
They also are lobbying Congress personally and through their scientific societies, planning marches, writing editorials and doing public outreach, Rizzolo added. “We have not done a good job in explaining our science to the general public and involving ourselves in public discourse. In this vacuum, falsehoods about science are readily spread. Scientists need, and are beginning, to make the case that science is a public good. The case needs to be made to the general public and to politicians who previously gave science strong bipartisan support.”
The success of the country’s scientific research programs are critical to America’s reputation as a world leader in collecting the best and brightest to fuel advancement, Esty added. “I would ask them [in the Trump administration] to take a hard look at how fundamental basic research is tied in with the economic well-being of the country and identity of Americans. We were explorers and pioneers. If we don’t [go forward], other people will.”