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House Republicans Counter Trump on University Research Costs

Published on: 7/13/2017

House Republicans issued a fiscal 2018 budget plan on Wednesday that rejects the Trump administration's proposal to eliminate or sharply cut so-called indirect-cost payments to universities for medical research.The plan, offered by Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma and chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the National Institutes of Health, makes clear that indirect-cost payments on NIH grants should continue "to the same extent and in the same manner" as has existed.

The language represents a crucial victory for research universities, which pushed hard over the past four months to convince lawmakers that such a response to budgetary constraints would be devastating to academic research and the economic benefits it provides the nation.

"Our universities reached out, and they had very serious conversations with their members" of Congress, said Jennifer T. Poulakidas, vice president for congressional and governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. When research grants are awarded to universities by the NIH, the National Science Foundation, and other federal science agencies, they add specified amounts - indirect-cost payments - to cover the costs of facilities and administration necessary to support the researchers and their labs.

Each university negotiates its own reimbursement rate with the federal government, with levels typically around 50 percent of the grant award.

Universities have long complained that their true costs for facilities and administration exceed those reimbursed levels. But the Trump administration and some in Congress have suggested that such payments extend beyond the research that taxpayers intend to support with the grants.

In its 2018 budget recommendation in March, the Trump administration suggested cutting NIH funds by 18 percent, from $31.7 billion to $25.9 billion. The difference nearly matches the $6.4 billion in indirect-cost reimbursements that the NIH paid last year to accompany $16.9 billion in underlying grant awards.

The budget presented by Mr. Cole would apparently provide the NIH with $35.2 billion in fiscal 2018.

Even the NIH's director, Francis S. Collins, has expressed frustration with the inability of some lawmakers to understand that indirect-cost payments are a central element of the longtime cost-sharing partnership between the government and research universities.

University presidents and administrators from almost every state with a congressman on Mr. Cole's subcommittee took part in a campaign of letters, phone calls, and visits to convince them of the need to keep intact the indirect-cost payment system, Ms. Poulakidas said.

The subcommittee is scheduled to vote on the plan on Thursday. It's the first major step in a budget process that requires votes by both houses of Congress.

The affirmation of indirect-cost payments "will help ensure life-saving research is not put in serious jeopardy," the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities said in a statement.

The Association of American Universities, which represents major research institutions, also welcomed the subcommittee's budget plan, if cautiously, given the early stage of voting on Capitol Hill. "We certainly consider it a promising development," said a spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro. But "it's far too early in the process for anyone to start dancing."


Source: Chronicle of Higher Education (subscriber login required to view full online article)


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