Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cutting the NIH Budget

I'm coming out from under my rock (a self-imposed exile to deal with other, more pressing matters), to point out this fantastic post by Matt Steinglass writing at Democracy in America at Economist.com.

Mr. Steinglass considers the continuing budget resolution passed by the House that will cut NIH funding by 2%, and he then cascades with evidence the short-sightedness of cutting NIH, as well as, pointing out its value to our economy.

Mr. Steinglass's larger point, and a point you hear all over the place these days is this: it's quaint to cut non-defense discretionary spending.  You seem serious about getting the budget in order, but you actually aren't serious.  Getting serious is dealing with entitlements.  So while you set medical research back by a couple decades, you do nothing to deal with the federal deficit.  Rest assured, when the ax falls, plenty of politicians will pat themselves on the back for being responsible fiscal stewards.

13 comments:

Colin said...

Cutting the NIH budget by 2% would "set medical research back by a couple decades"??? Really?

Jason said...

Did you read the article?:
"'The most important new thing we do every year is to make new awards to people with new ideas,' Varmus said. 'Yet we have obligations to people who got grant awards last year, the year before and the year before that.' With grants lasting as long as five years, Varmus explained, the National Cancer Institute is locked into long-term commitments... That is why new grants are so vulnerable as the government lurches from continuing resolution to continuing resolution. From his days at NIH, Varmus operates on the rough rule of thumb that 'the system works well if you are funding one-third of your new grant applications.' These days, the NIH as a whole is backing only maybe one-sixth of new grant requests. 'When you're only funding 10 or 12 percent,' Varmus said, 'you really can't make the distinctions between applicants that we're being asked to make... The number of new grants gets severely curtailed even with a 2-to-4 percent reduction.' With no more than 20 percent of NCI's budget devoted to new grants, even a $300-million cut in funding would send shock waves through the nation's cancer research community."

Colin said...

Yes, I did read it. The FY2012 budget request for the National Cancer Institute is $5,196,136,000. Take 2% off of that and you come up with $5,092,213,280, which is still $200 million greater than the FY 2009 budget of $4,809,819,000. This would set back medical research back *decades*??? Doesn't pass the laugh test.

Colin said...

BTW, Varmus is of course the NCI's director -- are we really supposed to be surprised that he is waxing apocalyptic about the impact of slight budget cuts? This guy isn't exactly a disinterested observer.

Jason said...

Even if "a couple decades" and "shockwaves" are slightly hyperbolic (and I would disagree that they are laughable in their hyperbole), certainly you can appreciate the vital role NIH grants play and have played in encouraging medical research.

And in part, you make my point. A cut of 2% is trivial in terms of the overall federal budget, but could mean the de-funding or non-funding of many promising grant proposals. The negative impact of that reduced funding is amorphous, but the positive impact is just about zero.

Are the proposed cuts about trimming the fat from government or about political theater? Is NIH really so wasteful they should be cut or is this about ideology that ignores fact? Clearly the cuts aren't about the deficit.

Colin said...

A cut of 2% is trivial in terms of the overall federal budget, but could mean the de-funding or non-funding of many promising grant proposals.

You can play this game endlessly. If cutting 2% would set us back decades, then think about how much medical science we are delaying by not increasing funding to $5.7 billion, or $6 billion or $7 billion. Is centuries of research being held back?

Will cutting NIH solve the deficit? No, of course not. But I also don't understand the argument that since discretionary cuts alone won't solve everywhere that we shouldn't do them, implying that nothing is better than something. And jeebus, given how intractable the Democrats are proving in the face of tiny budget cuts, only can only imagine the screams of anguish that will arise if actual entitlement cuts are ever proposed.

Jason said...

Is there waste at NIH? Is there proof that the organization can run leaner? These are the kind of thoughtful questions one would ask, if one were serious about making government more efficient.

The trouble is Republicans didn't ask those questions when they proposed cutting $100 billion from the budget during the 2010 campaign. They started with a number that polled well and worked backward to find the cuts. Doesn't seem to make any kind of fiscal sense to pick a number out of the air and then work backward to make it real.

The White House proposed no increase to non-defense discretionary spending, and then they did one better and found $6.5 billion in programs and funding they felt could be eliminated. Yet all you hear from the Republicans is "CUT MORE!" and it begins to be less about making government more efficient and more about ideology.

It seems entirely reasonable, if you want to give more money or give less money, that you would analyze the implications of either decision. To be sure, some Dems simply don't want cuts, but many want simply a fair consideration of the cuts being proposed, like at NIH.

Colin said...

The White House proposed no increase to non-defense discretionary spending, and then they did one better and found $6.5 billion in programs and funding they felt could be eliminated. Yet all you hear from the Republicans is "CUT MORE!" and it begins to be less about making government more efficient and more about ideology.

Jason, are we reading the same thing? By your own admission the Obama administration, faced with a deficit of $1.6 trillion, proposes a freeze and $6.5 billion in cuts -- 0.4% of the deficit and 0.2% of the overall budget. Are we to believe that amongst the literal trillions being spent that a measley $6.5 billion is all that can be eliminated? This is akin to a guy making $100K who has credit card debt of $700K vowing to not make any more major purchases and maybe cut out his daily trip to Starbucks. The only appropriate response to this thoroughly unserious proposal is howls of laughter and derision. This can only be viewed as even halfway serious only by comparison to the likes of Sen. Harry Reid railing against cuts to funding for cowboy poetry, whatever that is. How can you possibly defend this?

I'll further add that it doesn't help when that when cuts are proposed and met with apocalyptic doom-mongering by the opposition -- e.g. a 2% cut resulting in medical advances being set back by decades! Eventually the opposition will simply be tuned out due to an obvious lack of seriousness. It would be far more helpful if they said something to the effect of "While we agree with the premise of budget cutting, perhaps we shouldn't make cuts quite as deep here and instead make deeper cuts in this other place." But we see nothing of the kind. It really is like President Obama's analogy with the car being stuck in the [fiscal] ditch, with Republicans making at least some nominal effort (although $61 billion in cuts are far too small) to get it out while the Democrats sip on a Slurpee and criticize, or even try to push the car back in the ditch.

Jason said...

I have to come back to the question I've posed time and time again, is there waste to cut? Seriously, and how much waste is there? How much of the $520 billion (13% of the $3.83 trillion federal budget) is waste?

And maybe I missed it, but I haven't seen a proposal from the Republican leadership that does anything to address the other 87% of the federal budget. Rep. Ryan of Wisconsin released his "Road Map" which employed some math trickeration, but the Republican leadership has seemingly run away from it.

Instead, there is this obsession in the Republican party to cut to a number that bears no connection to an actual calculation of inefficiency.

Now let's talk about serious. You had a President that reformed healthcare in a deficit neutral, though many say deficit reducing way, that expands healthcare to millions of Americans while also increasing the market private insurers have access to. Yet, he was blasted by many Republican candidates in 2010 for cutting Medicare funding.

Colin said...

One other thing: the $6.5 billion in cuts you noted that was proposed by the White House has now been scored by the CBO as actually only amounting to $4.7 billion.

Colin said...

I have to come back to the question I've posed time and time again, is there waste to cut? Seriously, and how much waste is there? How much of the $520 billion (13% of the $3.83 trillion federal budget) is waste?

Most of it. We got along fine (arguably better) without a Department of Education until the late 1970s, so let's abolish it. Why do we need a Department of Commerce or a Department of Energy? Put them all on the chopping block.

Now, you can disagree and say that all this stuff is necessary, but guess what, we have a national debt of over $14 trillion and a deficit of $1.6 trillion. It's time to start cutting, and with an axe instead of a scalpel. We simply cannot afford the big government that has been foisted upon us. This is the reality everyone needs to understand.

And maybe I missed it, but I haven't seen a proposal from the Republican leadership that does anything to address the other 87% of the federal budget. Rep. Ryan of Wisconsin released his "Road Map" which employed some math trickeration, but the Republican leadership has seemingly run away from it.

You'll get no argument from me. Republicans absolutely should start talking entitlement reform. But by the same token, where are the Democrats on this? This is the party that had both the legislative and executive branches locked down for the past two years and did nothing with it. Last time the topic of social security came up they kicked and screamed about how it shouldn't be touched. Shouldn't the president exert some leadership here? Isn't that, you know, his job?

Instead, there is this obsession in the Republican party to cut to a number that bears no connection to an actual calculation of inefficiency.

The biggest fault on the part of the Republicans is that they are proposing a number that is not at all commensurate with the fiscal problems we are facing. If they added a zero we might be talking.

Colin said...

Lastly -- I promise -- to further place the Obama administration's piddling $6.5 billion in proposed cuts in perspetive, the federal deficit in January increased more than $7 billion PER DAY.

Colin said...

OK, I've tried posting this about 6 times but it keeps getting rejected. Will take out the HTML to see if that helps:

With regard to your response about Obamacare,
you seriously believe that it's deficit-neutral? Really? This is, at best, grossly naive. You really believe the doc fix will not occur as Obamacare assumes? Are you not bothered by reports already showing that consumers are not behaving as the plan intended, thus impacting its fiscal calculations? Are you not aware that the plan double counts savings from the Medicare cuts? Does it really stand to reason that a massive government program will help improve our fiscal situation? Has this ever happened?

"Increasing the market private insurers have access to" -- that's an interesting bit of spin to say the least. Yes, I suppose forcing people to purchase a product will help the market for the sellers of that product. Why that should be a public policy goal I haven't the slightest idea.

Lastly, yes, it is shameful how Republicans demagogued the Medicare cuts, which were about the only worthwhile part of the legislation.