Trump Wants Science Cuts, and Congress Responds With a Portrait

  • Trump has proposed cutting NIH budget, Congress opposes plan
  • GOP lawmaker suggests portrait honoring NIH champion instead

President Donald Trump has asked Congress to cut funding to the National Institutes of Health by billions of dollars. Instead, lawmakers may put up a portrait of a congressional champion of health research efforts. 

In March, Trump’s administration proposed cutting U.S. biomedical research funding at the National Institutes of Health by $5.8 billion. As part of the cut, the administration would eliminate the NIH’s Fogarty International Center, a key player in snuffing out lethal disease outbreaks around the world.

That proposal united liberals and conservatives -- in opposition. So instead of the cuts, a key Republican who runs a congressional committee responsible for the NIH’s budget wants to honor the legacy of late Democratic Representative John Edward Fogarty, for whom the center is named, with a portrait that would hang in the subcommittee’s meeting room.

The official portrait of Congressman John Edward Fogarty, in the Rhode Island State House.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

“You can’t hang everybody’s picture up, but this is a touchstone,” said Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that holds the purse strings for NIH.

The fight over the Fogarty Center is just a small illustration of how much difficulty Trump will advancing budget cuts that will be proposed when the administration releases its full fiscal 2018 budget next week. GOP members of Congress have already said they’d like to increase NIH funding, not cut it.

And as the list of administration controversies grow -- including alleged links of the Trump campaign to Russia that will be investigated by a special counsel -- Republicans are getting increasingly distracted from legislative priorities such as spending, a tax overhaul, and repealing and replacing Obamacare.

Personal Touch

The NIH center also had an activist with close ties to the former Democratic chairman -- Fogarty’s daughter, Mary, who reached out to Cole.
“I didn’t know that much about her dad, I just went back and looked him up and, wow,” Cole said in a telephone interview. “This guy’s life and career are probably what this committee ought to be about. He’s in some ways the patron saint of this committee.”

If Cole gets his wish, the portrait will be a prominent reminder of the U.S.’s commitment to research. He wants Fogarty’s picture hung in the panel’s Rayburn House Office Building hearing room, just across Independence Avenue from the U.S. Capitol, he told NIH leaders at a budget hearing Wednesday. He still has to work out logistics and permission, but he’s serious, he said.

Ebola Bulwark

Fogarty served in Congress for 27 years and fought repeatedly for an international research center. It was established by an executive order of then-President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 a year after Fogarty’s sudden death of a heart attack, according to the center’s website. Anthony Fauci, director of NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Cole’s panel at the hearing that Fogarty-trained researchers helped fight Ebola in West Africa and are helping lead efforts to develop a vaccine for the Zika virus.

“Do you want to deal with Ebola in West Africa or do you want to deal with it in West Dallas?” Cole said. “The federal government defending you from Ebola is probably as important as defending you from a terrorist attack because a pandemic will kill more people than a terrorist attack will.”

It’s also the right thing to do to help those that don’t have the means to stop outbreaks on their own, he said. 

“That is soft power at its very best, and it earns the U.S. a lot of good will around the world,” Cole said.

Cuts Rejected

Congress already rejected Trump’s attempts to cut $1.23 billion from NIH’s budget this fiscal year; instead, they increased its allocation by $2 billion in a spending bill passed earlier this month to fund the government through September. In a May 8 meeting at the White House, NIH Director Francis Collins joined biotech executives in telling Vice President Mike Pence, Ivanka Trump and Reed Cordish, a Trump assistant in charge of technology initiatives, that government-funded research is vital to developing new disease treatments.

“There is no way to substitute for the government’s part,” Regeneron Pharmaceuticals Inc. Chief Executive Officer Leonard Schleifer, who attended the meeting, said in an interview. “Only the government can do the basic research that sometimes takes decades to advance, and without that the rest of the system will grind to a halt.”

Although his panel will take Trump’s budget request seriously, Cole said he hopes Trump has changed his mind on NIH funding. The U.S. Office of Management and Budget didn’t respond to a request for comment about the spending proposal and the portrait.

For his own part, Cole said, “NIH is going to remain a priority certainly while I’m chairman.”

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