Proposed Cuts to Federal Research Funding Threaten UK’s Health and High-Tech Economy

In December, with bipartisan support, Congress passed the 21st Century Cures Act, a major piece of legislation designed to re-energize medical research within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – the world’s premier biomedical research government agency. But the recently released so called “skinny” budget within the America First budget blueprint, which includes a roughly $6 billion cut to the NIH, would profoundly curtail discovery and innovation across the U.S.

Members of the House and Senate from both parties have voiced their doubts about such cuts in federal funding for research and discovery, and the budget in its current form is by no means what will eventually pass. However, as UK is the flagship land-grant research institute of our state, we would be remiss if we did not portray to our citizenry, both within and external to the institution, why research matters and what is at stake. This week we outline the importance of federal funding for research at UK, with an emphasis on the realities of how these proposed cuts in research funding would influence not just UK, but the Commonwealth and nation at large.

First, let’s review the specifics of the proposed budget cuts and their impact on funding from federal research granting agencies:

  • 18.3% cut to the NIH
  • 18.3% cut to other agencies within the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)
  • 21% cut to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
  • 5.6% cut to the Department of Energy
  • 0.8% cut to the National Space and Aeronautics Agency (NASA)
  • 31% cut to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Next, let’s put this into the context of UK research.

Why does NIH funding to UK researchers matter?

NIH is an engine for both medical and economic progress across the nation, where approximately 80% of the NIH budget goes for support of biomedical research to identify basic biomedical concepts, discover new forms of biotechnology and patentable entities, or prevent and treat human diseases. 

Funding in these areas from the NIH supports the lion’s share of research at UK, and has a large impact on the state.  According to the “United for Medical Research” report, NIH awarded $163.6 million in grants and contracts in FY2016 that directly supported 2,886 jobs and $431.6 million in economic activity in Kentucky. For every $1 million in NIH awards, 12.95 jobs are created. 

So, what would it mean if the “skinny” budget were applied to NIH-supported research at UK?  In FY2016, UK received $92.4 million in grants from the NIH, which was 57% percent of all federal awards received by the university. If federal funding cuts to the NIH were applied through the “skinny” budget, UK funding from this source would proportionately decrease to $75.5 million. With this reduction in NIH funding, we estimate a reduction in 219 jobs at UK alone, with an effective loss of 339 jobs across the Commonwealth.

It is not just reductions in NIH funding that are important, it is the types of research that would be reduced if these reductions were realized. This is especially important, as health conditions that devastate our citizens exist at higher rates in Kentucky than the rest of the U.S. More Kentuckians die of cancer, and Kentucky ranks in the top 10 in heart attacks, drug deaths, strokes, diabetes, cardiovascular deaths and obesity.  

UK is currently one of only 22 public institutions in the country with a “trifecta” of federal NIH-based designations of excellence in research: for aging, in cancer and in translational science. We receive support from several agencies of the NIH to support research on cardiovascular diseases, stroke, diabetes, obesity, and substance abuse—a problem of immense impact that can only be blunted by research.

In addition, basic research, the largest driver of future patents and technology, is an under-pinning of research within laboratories across UK. In March, the journal Science published a study, examining 27 years of data, that showed 8.4 percent of all NIH grants directly produce patents for new drugs, medical devices or other medicine-related technologies. The same study showed that 31 percent of all scientific papers generated by NIH grants are cited by successful patent applications from private firms, evidence that federal funding has an important carryover effect on the private sector.

Other proposed federal funding cuts threaten high-tech economy

The skinny budget does not spell out cuts to the National Science Foundation. This federal agency, which funded grants to UK totaling $21.3 million in FY2016, supports research across campus in science, technology, engineering and math. This includes UK’s leading-edge nanotechnology research (with new instruments and innovative materials that impact engineering and medicine) and battery research (lithium-ion batteries for consumer devices like smart phones, and non-aqueous redox flow batteries for next-generation electric grid storage). These research areas fuel America’s high-tech economy, generate patents and create new consumer markets.

The USDA, in conjunction with the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, provides support to land-grant institutions such as UK for programs including cooperative extension (which includes offices in every county that make a difference in the lives of Kentuckians through research-based education), agricultural production and food safety, equine research, and biotechnology in agricultural science. Six of the 10 major vaccines currently used to protect against equine infectious diseases were developed by faculty in UK’s Department of Veterinary Sciences. Specifically, the cure for Mare Reproductive Loss Syndrome, which threatened the thoroughbred industry in Central Kentucky, was developed at UK.

Last, but not least, the arts

Finally, let’s not forget support of the arts, as the proposed budget cuts would eliminate support for the National Endowment for the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.  As an institution of higher learning, we are committed to the pursuit of creative and scholarly work. Support through these agencies is critical to our world-class opera program and other vital inspirational work by UK faculty, staff and students.

Although the skinny budget is merely step one in the congressional budget and appropriations process, the impacts of this proposal should not go unassessed. As you know, Congress will ultimately have major input into final decisions about spending. UK’s Office of Federal Relations is working with other universities and our higher education associations to make the case against major cuts to these programs. I want to assure you that leaders at the university will remain in contact with our congressional delegation in Washington D.C., to advocate for federal research funding.

We can’t cut back the pace of progress now. Doing so threatens Kentucky’s future.