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Medical researchers worry over budget cuts

President Donald Trump has proposed cutting about 20 percent from the roughly $30 billion budget of the National Institutes of Health, the nation's medical research agency that supports research on cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Zika and other conditions.

Research institutions nationwide decried the cuts as potentially devastating to their work.

Among those who stand to lose the most are the University of California, San Francisco, which for the past three years has received more of the agency's biomedical grants than any other public university in the country.

Grants to the university's four schools that tailor to health professions reached nearly $634 million in fiscal year 2016, according to the university's office of the president.

[TRUMP’S BUDGET: Explore proposed cuts, additions by agency]

"It's tremendously shocking," said Keith Yamamoto, vice chancellor for science policy and strategy at the San Francisco university.

"The hope was that biomedical research would fare well," even in the face of the administration's stated desire to control spending, said Yamamoto, a top researcher in cellular and molecular pharmacology.

Total National Institutes of Health funding for the University of California system in the 2016 fiscal year reached nearly $2 billion.

At Johns Hopkins University, the institution receiving the most in National Institutes of Health grants last year, an official described the potential budget cuts as "extraordinarily threatening." Johns Hopkins received about $651 million from the agency.

Officials at Harvard University, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and the University of Alabama at Birmingham voiced similar concerns, arguing that the cuts could set back basic scientific research that has led to lifesaving medical treatment.

Based in Bethesda, Md., the National Institutes of Health spends most of its annual budget -- about 85 percent -- on grants to thousands of researchers and medical institutions across the country.

Traditionally, biomedical research has enjoyed strong bipartisan support. Grant increases to major National Institutes of Health recipients had been averaging about 3 percent per year during the Obama administration.

National Institutes of Health officials declined to comment on Trump's budget blueprint, but its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, released a statement saying the agency is "dedicated to fulfilling our department's mission to improve the health and well-being of the American people."

The officials said the budget supports that mission and will help ensure delivery of critical services "in the most efficient and effective manner possible."

Congressional Democrats are already pushing back against Trump's fiscal plan, as are some Republicans. Political observers caution that presidents' budget proposals, while signaling administration priorities, rarely are approved by Congress without major changes.

Still, Yamamoto said, "research laboratories run like small businesses that operate on a very tight margin. There's no slack in any element of it."

The results of double-digit funding cuts, he said, "would be dramatic and immediate and disastrous."

Sam Hawgood, the chancellor of University of California, San Francisco, called the cuts "deeply disturbing," saying the National Institutes of Health and the research it supports are "the envy of the world." As a public institution, the university has honored "a pact with taxpayers by conducting research that has improved the health of all Americans," Hawgood said.

Federal money for research, in addition to finding cures for disease, also stimulates job creation, with grant dollars being paid back many times over, Hawgood said.

"Nearly 200 startup companies have been launched based on UCSF research," Hawgood said. "Those companies now offer good jobs and generate tax revenues that bolster the American economy."

The entire University of California system benefits from National Institutes of Health support, with the system's San Diego university winning more than $414 million in competitive grants last year -- placing it squarely among the agency's top 10 recipients. Janet Napolitano, the president of the university system and a former homeland security secretary under President Barack Obama, issued a statement decrying the proposed budget cuts, saying they would "stifle crucial advancements toward solving our nation's most pressing needs and challenges."

In a press briefing Thursday, Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, supported a major reorganization of the National Institutes of Health, calling for a consolidation of the agency's 27 different institutes and centers with a "focus on efficiencies." According to Mulvaney, the institutes had been subject to "mission creep," expanding "beyond their core functions."

A Section on 03/20/2017

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