Harry W. Orf, PhD, Senior Vice President for Research
Harry W. Orf, PhD, Senior Vice President for Research

From scientists and physicians to senior leadership, members of the Massachusetts General Hospital research community are expressing deep concerns about President Donald Trump’s proposed budget for fiscal 2018, which calls for a $5.6 billion cut in funding for medical research via the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Harry W. Orf, PhD, Mass General’s senior vice president for research, recently spoke to the Boston radio news station WBUR about the impact of the proposed cut, which represents one-fifth, or 20% of the NIH’s overall operating budget.

“In a word, it would be devastating to have a cut this deep, particularly at a time when the budget has not increased for the past decade,” Dr. Orf told WBUR.

Since the NIH has not provided any inflationary increases in the past decade to compensate institutions for rising overhead costs, the additional cuts would place significant strain on an already tight research budget, Dr. Orf said. “A 20 percent cut to research funding through the NIH at this point would be really devastating not just to the hospital, but to the entire research community and the nation.”

Budget Cuts Hit Research Jobs

As the largest hospital-based research enterprise in the United States, the Mass General Research Institute would be particularly hard-hit by the proposed cuts. Of the Research Institute’s $850 million budget in 2016, almost half ($365 million) comes from NIH-funded, merit-based research grants and awards.

A 20 percent cut in NIH funding would mean many principal investigators — the faculty leaders of research labs— would have to lay off staff members and derail promising research studies. Essentially a fifth of Mass General’s researchers, grant applications and discoveries would be in jeopardy, Dr. Orf said.

Reverberations Throughout Medicine

At the national level, the cuts would reduce the number of research projects funded each year at a time when demand is already exceeding supply.

“Right now, the NIH, on a national average, funds 17 percent of the grant applications that come in, even though more than twice that number are deemed worthy of funding,” Dr. Orf explained. “With a 20 percent cut, you’re going to be funding one out of every eight grants that come in.”

The effects of such a reduction would have reverberations throughout the medical field, Dr. Orf said. “Think about all the advances that have taken place in healthcare in the last hundred years. All of those medical advances begin with fundamental research and translational research, which are supported by the NIH.”

“When that gets hurt, then the pipeline for the fundamental discoveries that eventually lead to new products, new therapeutics and new diagnostics for patients—that pipeline is getting squeezed.”

Big Massachusetts Impact

The NIH cuts would have a particularly big impact on Massachusetts, which is home to a large cluster of academic research institutions that rely on NIH funding.

Patient care will also be impacted, Dr. Orf said, explaining that with growing pressure to keep healthcare costs down, there is an urgent need to develop new technologies and approaches that make medicine more affordable.

“If we stop the fundamental research that’s progressing in those areas, it’s going to make it even harder to get healthcare costs down going forward.”

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