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Trump’s huge cuts to science, medical research and disease prevention: An “unprecedented assault on research in the United States.”

By Steve Smith

President Trump's 2018 budget request, delivered to Congress on Tuesday has roiled the medical and science community with a call for massive cuts in spending on scientific research, medical research, disease prevention programs and health insurance for children of the working poor.

As described in coverage by The Washington Post, the National Cancer Institute would be hit with a $1 billion cut compared to its 2017 budget. The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute would see a $575 million cut, and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases would see a reduction of $838 million. The overall National Institutes of Health budget would be cut from $31.8 billion to $26 billion.

The National Science Foundation, which dispenses grants to a variety of scientific research endeavors, would be trimmed $776 million, an 11 percent cut.

All this cutting will have tremendous impact on our ability to move the needle forward in crucial science and discovery in heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s and other chronic illnesses that plague our society. All this cutting plays well with fiscal conservatives who are quick to point out instances of wasteful spending, but how will we make up the funding gap?

Can private philanthropy bridge the gap? It’s been said that private support can do only so much, and that a strong, publicly funded effort is vital if we are to make the scientific breakthroughs required in our time.

Tate Williams, in a recent Inside Philanthropy post, said, “Deep, broad cuts to government research spending—in particular, an 18 percent reduction to the historically sacrosanct NIH budget—signaled an unprecedented assault on research in the United States.”

That’s to say, philanthropists care very much about the overall state of science research in the United States. They also like to stay in the background, for the most part.

Foundations are part of the debate over federal research funding

But whether they like it or not, foundations are part of the debate over federal research funding. Even if funders don’t agree themselves, headlines about outsized philanthropic endeavors may feed into a misconception that private support can cover the tab.

Philanthropy should actively work to counter that idea and to protect the role of public research funding, especially now that it’s under such a brazen attack.

Williams cited a 2014 New York Times feature about science philanthropy by Robert Conn, president of the Kavli Foundation, acknowledging his concern that large private giving might diminish government support. 

“It’s always been a major worry,” Conn told the Times. “Philanthropy is no substitute for government funding. You can’t say that loud enough.”

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