While Harvard as a whole received almost $600 million from the federal government in 2016, 69.9 percent of that came from the National Institutes of Health, and Medical School professors say that federal research funding is particularly important for their work. Federal funding for research at Harvard has steadily declined since 2009, leading University President Drew G. Faust to cite the NIH as a “major focus of concern” during a visit to Washington D.C. in February.
“NIH’s funds in research grants allow investigators to pursue interesting and novel ideas with a lot of academic freedom and intellectual freedom,” said Medical School and pediatrics professor Kenneth D. Mandl. “It’s a very well-designed system to promote high quality medical research.”
Mandl said while he doesn’t expect any “tectonic shifts” in research funding, he thinks there are certain research agencies such as the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality and Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute “whose very existence may be in question with the new budget.”
“If we see those agencies diminished, we would see less research that’s evaluative of the healthcare system itself,” Mandl said.
Aaron S. Kesselheim ’96, a Medical School professor who studies drug approval and drug development laws, said that the potential decreases in funding, combined with inflation, is “worrying.”
“Unfortunately, it may drive some smart people out of the field and out of academia because there just isn’t as much funding available to go around,” Kesselheim said.
Kesselheim said that most “transformative” drugs that have been approved by the United States in the last 25 years have “had direct origins in publicly funded research.”
“The kind of therapeutic innovation that is most likely to move the needle clinically comes from these publicly funded origins,” Kesselheim said.
Mandl also noted that in the past two years, requirements for receiving NIH funding have also increased, resulting in a more competitive process for grant-seekers and a “push for diversification” of funding sources. He said he expects that trend to continue in the future.
John N. Campbell, a researcher at the Medical School, said that potential budget cuts made him “nervous.” Last year, Campbell catalogued 50 distinct brain cell types associated with appetite using a “relatively expensive” technique called gene expression profiling.
“Funding is a worthwhile investment because we learn things we can’t find out in any other way,” Campbell said. “The progress being made now in terms of understanding how the brain works will lead to breakthrough after breakthrough for medicine.”
“I think we are all a bit nervous about [potential budget cuts], but we’re staying optimistic and investment in science is always a priority,” Campbell said.
Campbell said that in the event of budget cuts, researchers would most likely seek alternative sources of funding through non-profit organizations. Otherwise, Campbell said, the scope of research projects could be reduced.
Beyond the Medical School, professors across Harvard are worried about cuts in research funding despite a record fiscal year. In February, humanities professors expressed concern about the potential cuts to the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Environmental studies professors also expect to be affected by potential budget cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency.
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