BAR HARBOR — Uncertainty in federal funding for scientific research is a major concern for The Jackson Laboratory, the largest employer here. But the lab and researchers around the country appear to have Congress largely on their side.
President Donald Trump’s budget proposal for 2018, released in March, included a $1 billion cut to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a primary source of research grants for scientists.
“The administration put out what they call a ‘skinny budget’ outline that called for huge cuts in virtually all the agencies,” said Mike Hyde, the laboratory’s external affairs director.
Researchers in Maine received $76 million in new NIH grants in 2016, according to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), an advocacy group. Of that, $53.7 million went to The Jackson Laboratory and $7.3 million to the MDI Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove.
That proposal is different from the immediate budget deal struck by Congress at the end of April, a continuing resolution to fund the government through October. That deal included a $2 billion, 6.2 percent increase for the NIH. The increase includes $352 million over 10 years provided by the 21st Century Cures Act, signed into law in December 2016.
“All of Maine’s congressional delegation are supporters of increased funding for NIH,” Hyde said. “That support is widespread in the Congress, and it’s pretty bipartisan. So on balance, it seems unlikely to us that we would see cuts of the magnitude proposed by the administration. It’s hard to imagine support for biomedical research would dissolve overnight, but it’s clear there’s going to be a budget battle.”
Officials at the laboratory, including Edison Liu, president and CEO, spoke up about the proposed cut for fiscal year 2018. Last week, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins wrote to thank him for his advocacy.
“I appreciate hearing from you and share the concern that NIH cuts would have devastating effects on The Jackson Laboratory,” she said. “There is simply no investment that promises greater returns for America than our investment in biomedical research.”
The laboratory also sells mice to other research organizations, Hyde said. Much of that work also is NIH-supported. “So if there were a sudden drop in NIH funding, it would affect mouse sales,” he said. “We could imagine getting hammered from two directions.”
Concern has been ongoing for more than a decade. Between 1995 and 2003, the NIH budget increased significantly every year, doubling the agency’s budget over that period.
But since 2003, Hyde said, not every year has seen an increase. What increases there were did not keep up with inflation, and the buying power of the appropriation fell.
“The major effect for faculty members has been heightened competition,” he said. “It was impossible to support all of those people at the level that had been possible before. Pressure rose, and it created a lot of stress. It’s particularly difficult for new scientists, because it’s harder for them to win in the competition for funding.”
NIH grant awards are for one to five years, Hyde said. The specifics of the project budget are negotiated between the researcher, the laboratory and the NIH program officer.
“When you submit your proposal to NIH, it’s accompanied by a detailed budget,” he said. In that budget, “direct costs” are expenses like research scientist compensation, mice or microscopes. But it also includes “indirect costs” like snow plowing or help from a human resources office. At The Jackson Laboratory, indirect costs also include scientific services such as microscopy and hematology.
Congressional committees have discussed cutting the “indirect cost” portion of NIH grants, Hyde said, so the laboratory is tracking that debate closely.