Cancer researchers and administrators have attacked the Trump administration's proposal to cut the NIH budget by nearly 20%. Researchers say that the reduction could hamstring efforts to expand immunotherapies and other novel treatments to more patients. They also worry that the proposal could drive away biomedical scientists and shift top-notch research to other countries.

“Devastating,” “unacceptable,” “draconian,” “disappointing”—those are just a few of the words that researchers, administrators, and cancer organizations are using to describe the Trump administration's proposal to slash the NIH budget by nearly 20% for fiscal year (FY) 2018.

Released on March 16, the administration's preliminary budget proposal allocates $25.9 billion for the NIH for the year beginning on October 1, a cut of $5.8 billion over FY 2017. The plan also calls for “a major reorganization of NIH's Institutes and Centers to help focus resources on the highest priority research and training activities,” but spells out few of the changes. The document is only an outline, and further details will be available when the full budget is released in May.

Such a large cut to NIH funding “would be devastating at any time, but it would be unusually devastating now,” says Theodore Lawrence, MD, PhD, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and former director of the university's Comprehensive Cancer Center. He says that a reduction in NIH grant support “would be lethal” to researchers' efforts to make powerful new treatments, such as immunotherapies, work for a larger fraction of patients. “I don't think it's being melodramatic to say that thousands of patients will lose their lives over the next few years because of these cuts.”

If the budget cuts are enacted, they could deter young scientists from entering biomedical research and prompt “the loss of maybe a whole generation” of veteran scientists who decide to leave, says Craig Thompson, MD, president of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, NY. “I think new areas and new approaches would be stifled,” he says. “The focus of the best research might shift from the U.S.”

The administration's plan is merely a proposal, however. Congress sets federal spending levels and will determine funding for the NIH when it begins to work on the full budget later this year. Thompson notes that biomedical research has always had strong support in both parties. “I don't think this is over yet,” he says. –Mitch Leslie