SOUTH BURLINGTON — At a gathering of more than 300 scientists from across the Northeast, Sen. Patrick Leahy denounced President Donald Trump’s proposals to cut federal funding for scientific research.
Leahy, D-Vt., is the highest-ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, which will review Trump’s proposed budget when Congress returns from its summer recess in September.
Leahy made the comments at the Northeast Regional NIH Biomedical Research Conference in front of more than 300 biomedical researchers from Vermont, Rhode Island, Delaware and other states. The conference ended Friday.
Leahy said Trump’s budget is “based on the whims of an anti-science, know-nothingism administration” that cuts funding not just for organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency, the Centers for Disease Control, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Trump’s budget also proposes to cut $7.2 billion from the National Institutes of Health, the major arm of the federal government responsible for biomedical research. That amounts to 21 percent of the NIH budget, and the lowest budget for NIH since 2002.
Tens of millions of dollars in NIH grants come to Vermont facilities. That’s in part because Vermont is part of an NIH grant called Institutional Development Awards, or IDeA. The federal government gives out the money to projects in states that historically did not get a lot of NIH funding.
Using that funding, the University of Vermont has created the Vermont Genetics Network — which gives small undergraduate colleges in Vermont access to UVM’s research facilities — and the Vermont Center for Immunology and Infectious Diseases, among other resources.
Leahy said the IDeA program has brought research to small areas like Vermont, brought health care practitioners to historically underserved areas, and helped train students and faculty at UVM. He said scientists now worry whether their research will be funded into the future.
“Medical research cannot be turned on and off,” Leahy said. “Scientists don’t hit ‘pause’ on studies and continue the research when federal funding resumes. The ups and downs of the budget … are particularly harmful to the medical research field. Budding scientists and researchers might decide to seek other career paths, leaving fewer scientists and fewer discoveries.”
Leahy said some of those cancer research discoveries at NIH helped his wife Marcelle survive an aggressive form of melanoma that doctors found in 2003. Leahy said the family used resources from NIH to help find treatment options that would not have been available just a few years before the diagnosis. The two are about to celebrate their 55th wedding anniversary.
“The bigger picture in all of this right now is the deeply troubling anti-science agenda that is reflected in the administration’s budget, and in its wholesale rollback of science-based policies, regulations and initiatives, from renewable energy, to withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords,” Leahy said.
Dr. Ralph Budd, a professor at the UVM College of Medicine who leads a biomedical research group, said, “The attack on science is coming from all angles, and all areas of science are feeling this.”
Budd said Leahy is right about the long-term effects of a few years of NIH funding cuts. He said scientists saw the effects when the federal government cut funding for NIH back in the 1990s.
“A lot of people gave up and left (the field), and then (the government) realized what had happened,” Budd said. “It was a long time recovering from that. You lose a generation of scientists. You don’t get it back in three years.”
Leahy said: “When we go back into session in September I will fight every single day to keep (funding) going, not just for the people here, but for the next generation and the generation after that.”