Should taxpayers cover the light bills at university labs? Trump kicks off a tense debate

M

edical research can’t be done in the dark. But should taxpayers be covering the light bills at university labs across the country?

The Trump administration’s answer is no. The president has proposed a massive $7 billion budget cut for the National Institutes of Health over the next 18 months. And Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price said this week that he may find those savings in the “indirect expenses” that NIH funds, which includes everything from buying lab equipment to paying the electric bills for thousands of academic research labs from Harvard to Ohio State to Stanford.

Such pronouncements are sending ripples of alarm through universities, which last year received $16.9 billion in federal funding for research — and another $6.4 billion to cover their overhead costs.

STAT talked to more than a dozen university administrators and researchers across the nation. Some said they could, perhaps, find common ground with Trump in his quest to cut regulations; less red tape for federally funded labs, they said, would mean lower costs — and smaller overhead bills.

But nearly all expressed alarm at the thought of losing taxpayer support for “indirect costs” that they consider vital to their biomedical research — costs like keeping freezers running and labs heated.

“Unless you’re studying butterflies, you can’t conduct biomedical research in the middle of a field,” said Dr. Pamela Davis, dean of Case Western Reserve School of Medicine.

“It would be absolutely devastating. In fact, it would close down some research institutions,” said Dawn Bonnell, vice provost for research at University of Pennsylvania. “It’s just unthinkable to imagine how one would move forward.”

MIT President L. Rafael Reif was alarmed enough to write all employees this week to warn…

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