White House Aide Optimistic About Biomedical Programs' Future

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April 14 — Biomedical research programs developed under the Obama administration have enough support to withstand a transition in presidency, the White House science adviser said April 14.

John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said during a science policy forum that initiatives to advance precision medicine and combatantibiotic resistance, and the cancer moonshot, “will continue no matter what.”

“There are a number of these initiatives that are so manifestly bipartisan in their appeal that they without question will be continued,” he said.

Holdren's remarks were in response to a question about which of President Barack Obama's scientific programs are most likely to have a lasting effect.

This “approach is scandalous, that NIH is funding one-third of the proposals that are worthy.”

“Well, clearly the ease or difficulty of maintaining continuity across administrations is likely to depend on who is elected. I can’t comment further on that,” he said. Biomedical and public health initiatives will move forward because of their bipartisan appeal, Holdren said, while Obama's programs in clean energy and climate change may face more challenges.

“In terms of the pace and the commitment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, we are not letting up. We’re in full speed toward the finish line,” he said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science Forum on Science and Technology Policy.

Much Accomplished, Work Remains

In his eighth keynote speech at the forum, Holdren said that while a lot of work remains, the president has done a lot to keep his 2009 inaugural address pledge to “restore science to its rightful place.”

“The president has used the bully pulpit and the White House venue to promote science, technology, and innovation to an extraordinary degree,” Holdren said.

But there are a number of challenges across the spectrum of sciences, including the need for more research funding and efforts to educate the public, he said. In terms of biomedical research, Holdren said, “We have an enormous opportunity to exploit recent advances in biomedical sciences and big data to drastically improve health care. And that has to be a continuing effort.”

During a question-and-answer session with AAAS Chief Executive Officer Rush D. Holt Jr., Holdren also noted the number of scientific opportunities that the U.S. is leaving unfunded. The National Institutes of Health is expected to fund fewer than 18 percent of grant funding applications in fiscal year 2017 (10 LSLR 07, 4/1/16).

Holdren recalled asking NIH Director Francis S. Collins how many applications that come into the agency are actually worthy of receiving funding based on the importance of the problem, the qualifications of the investigators and the likelihood of the success of the proposal. He said Collins told him about half those applications merit funding, but with an 18 percent success rate, the NIH can fund only about a third of them.

This “approach is scandalous, that NIH is funding one-third of the proposals that are worthy,” he said.

But he said the NIH's current annual budget of about $32 billion is already the biggest piece of the federal government's civil research and development budget.

“Could you triple that easily? Certainly not, that would require another $60 billion in the federal budget,” Holdren said. “But we should be moving in that direction.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jeannie Baumann in Washington jbaumann@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Lee Barnes at lbarnes@bna.com

For More Information

More information on the AAAS forum is at http://www.aaas.org/page/forum-science-technology-policy.