WashU Experts: Science cuts would cause ‘chilling effect’

Colored vials
Photo: NIH

Proposed federal budget cuts to two major programs could translate into fewer treatments, fewer cures, fewer drug findings, fewer researchers and fewer breakthroughs in areas where the United States is a world leader, say science and health experts at Washington University in St. Louis.

President Trump unveiled March 16 plans to slash $6 billion from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and potentially almost $1 billion from the National Science Foundation (NSF), according to news reports.

“The NIH provides one of the primary sources of support for biomedical-, psychological- and neuroscience-based research in the United States,” said Deanna Barch, chair of the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences in Arts & Sciences and the Gregory B. Couch Professor of Psychiatry at the School of Medicine.  


“This funding has made the U.S. the world leader in these research areas. These successes have been a primary driver of innovation, new technologies and successful treatments, and have been a major force in the economic success of this country.  

“President Trump’s massive proposed budget cut for the NIH would have a devastatingly negative impact on our ability to continue these critical efforts in understanding the causes of many major public health concerns, including mental illness.  It would have a chilling effect on our ability to develop more effective and targeted treatments and prevention approaches. Further, such dramatic cuts would serve to discourage many of our best and brightest from pursuing careers in health-related scientific research, significantly undermining our ability to improve the health and well-being of Americans.”

Two leading researchers at the School of Medicine, studying antibiotic resistance and Alzheimer’s, were quoted in a March 16 story in STAT News about the proposed cuts.

Gautam Dantas, an associate professor of pathology and immunology, studies antibiotic resistance with funding from the National Institutes of Health. He told STAT that life-saving medical advances that improve people’s lives are rooted in bench research. “Almost any important translated discovery can trace its way back to a basic science investment, where no one who was working on that discovery at that time would know it would be translated that way.”


In his own lab, Dantas is working to develop antimicrobial therapies to fight some of the worst pathogens, such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which can be difficult to treat because it is resistant to common antibiotics. Annually, some 80,000 people in the United States are infected with MRSA, and 12,000 deaths are attributed to the illness.

 Trump’s budget proposal, Dantas added, hurts the psyche of scientists.

“These are some of the best and brightest people in our education system, who have chosen not to jump into careers that could immediately give them money because they believe in the enterprise,” Dantas told STAT. “That’s going to demoralize a lot of people. It tells them both implicitly and explicitly that their government doesn’t care about their livelihoods and the things that they believe in.”


John Morris, MD, who leads Washington University’s highly regarded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center, said NIH cutbacks would slow progress against Alzheimer’s. The devastating disease is estimated to affect 28 million baby boomers by 2050, at a cost of more than $300 billion.

 Morris, the Harvey A. and Dorismae Hacker Friedman Distinguished Professor of Neurology, and his colleagues lead a number of clinical studies that aim to improve the early diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, and to develop treatments to slow or possibly even prevent the onset of the disease.

“These are long-term studies, so to have a budget cut would seriously violate our ability to tell people, ‘We’re going to follow you for five years, for 10 years,’” Morris told STAT. 

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