Duke and UNC worried about Trump’s proposed budget cuts

President Donald Trump speaks at a rally Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn.
President Donald Trump speaks at a rally Wednesday, March 15, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. AP

U.S. President Donald Trump’s fiscal 2017-18 budget framework would “slam the brakes on a very important source of economic growth and jobs” in the Triangle via its proposed cuts to research, arts and education programs, Duke University’s chief spokesman said on Thursday.

The proposal “takes a sledgehammer” to those initiatives and would “undercut, if not dismantle, a system of research that has led to countless cures, treatments and improvements in the quality and length of life,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations.

He added that he expects “a vigorous debate” on the matter as the budget moves through Congress, as many of the programs Trump and his staff are targeting “have had broad, sustained bipartisan support [there] for many years.”

Schoenfeld was reacting to a proposal that among other things called for reducing the budget of the National Institutes of Health -- the key funder of medical research at both Duke and UNC Chapel Hill -- by $5.8 billion. It would slash spending from the current $31.7 billion, knocking it down to $25.9 billion.

As much of the agency’s budget goes flows to grants awarded in prior years, there’d be little or nothing left in it for new grants in 2018, former NIH Deputy Director Kathy Hudson told the journal Science.

The Trump proposal, released by the federal Office of Management and Budget, gave few details about where the cuts would fall at NIH but said there should be “a major reorganization” of its centers and institutes and a “rebalance [of] federal contributions to research.”

Elsewhere, the president and his staff favor the wholesale elimination of such things as the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, and an end to federal support for alternative-energy technology development.

Trump himself termed the proposed cuts “sensible and rational,” and portrayed them as a turn toward the guns side of the federal government’s perennial guns-versus-butter budget debate. He left no doubt he wants to free money for an expansion of military spending, specifically a $54 billion increase in 2017-18 allocations he termed “vital to rebuilding and preparing our armed forces for the future.”

He did not specify what contingencies he has in mind, but has dropped hints that he’d welcome an opportunity to “take the oil” of the Middle East. The OMB document indicated that future proposals to increase spending on the military are possible, as it labeled a proposal to expand the U.S. Navy a “down payment,” a requested allotment to the U.S. Army “an initial step,” and another for the U.S. Marine Corps one that “lays the foundation for a force that meets the challenges of the 21st century.”

Financially, the research enterprise at Duke and UNC depends heavily on federal funding.

In fiscal 2015-16, for example, UNC Chapel Hill received more than $400 million from the NIH alone, out of $846.7 million in research money that came its way from federal and state agencies,. foundations, nonprofit groups and private business, state auditors said in their annual report on the public university’s finances.

All told, existing NIH grants to UNC Chapel Hill researchers would be worth nearly $2.5 billion to the university over their lifetime, and are funding work to fight such maladies as cancer, HIV/AID, hepatitis and malaria, UNC Chapel Hill chief spokeswoman Joanne Peters said.

She added that UNC officials “are still evaluating the potential impacts” of Trump’s proposal.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg