On 30 April, the Congress announced a bipartisan spending deal that bestowed the National Institutes of Health a USD2 billion funding boost over the next five months.

The agreement is a clear rejection of President Trump’s proposal to cut USD1.2 billion from the medical research agency in the current fiscal year, much to the delight of many health experts.

“We didn’t expect a funding boost,” said Diana Zuckerman, an epidemiologist and director of the National Centre for Health Research.

However, the deal does not address funding for 2018, when Trump proposed a cut of USD5.8 billion from NIH’s budget, of which some health experts called for more pressure to be put on Congress for more money for the NIH then.

“It is incumbent upon all of us, as private citizens, to do that lobbying or advocacy for NIH funding,” said Dr Betsy Nabel, president of Brigham Health. “Whether you’re academics or public sector… speaking out and lobbying is critically important.”

Bipartisan lawmakers make it clear that medical research is supported

The recent deal however, highlights the obstacles that Trump will have to overcome as it sends clear messages across that bipartisan lawmakers prioritise funding for medical research and intend to fulfil the agreements in the 21st Century Cures Act – also a bipartisan bill that called for raising NIH funding and speedier approvals of new drugs and medical devices.

This will be the second year running that Congress tops up USD2 billion funding to the agency, which funds medical research across the country.

The NIH boost includes an extra USD400 million to research Alzheimer’s disease and an additional USD476 million for the National Cancer Institute. It also adds on to the Precision Medicine Initiative, which will see an extra USD120 million; and the BRAIN Initiative, which receives an extra USD110 million to support work of mapping the human brain.

Previously, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price suggested that the NIH budget could be slashed without compromising medical research by reducing grants for “indirect costs” such as utility bills, heating costs, pricey equipment and other expenses that support universities’ biomedical labs. University administrators obviously were not impressed at the suggestion.

NIH funding benefits some companies and the pharma industry

Some companies such as Illumina Inc., Bio-Techne Corp., and Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc., all of which produce equipment and other materials that support medical research, would benefit from this agreement. The NIH funds many projects that acquire equipment from these companies, so the better the NIH is funded, the better these companies will fare.

NIH funding on the other hand does not affect the pharmaceutical industry as much, but the sector has been proven to be pro-NIH and a big supporter of the 21st Century Cures Act, because basic research that the NIH funds, is time-consuming and failure prone.

Pharmaceutical companies then benefit from avoiding the need to carry out such research. A substantial amount of new and innovative drugs have had their roots in NIH-funded research that was either licensed by a large pharmaceutical company or a smaller biotech firm afterwards. While the NIH receives royalties, the pharma companies profits much more with the successful drug sales.

Future threats to NIH funding will not be taken seriously

The Trump’s administrations’ grudge against medical research was one of the strangest parts of its proposed budget. It was also one of the unlikeliest to become a reality as the moment Trump proposed such steep cuts, the Republicans have allied with the Democrats in rejecting them.

The Republican members who chair the health appropriations subcommittees in the House and Senate – Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri and Representative Tom Cole of Oklahoma, respectively – have been committed in their support for NIH funding. Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has similarly advocated for research spending, especially as he helped push the 21st Century Cures Act into law.

This suggests that any further threats to NIH funding will probably not be taken too seriously. As Cole put it in March when Trump requested a USD1.2 billion NIH cut: “Not going to happen.” MIMS

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