UNC-CH leaders looking to Congress to blunt proposed Trump budget cuts

President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on women in healthcare, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting on women in healthcare, Wednesday, March 22, 2017, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) AP

UNC-Chapel Hill’s leaders are hoping Congress spares the National Institutes of Health and other key federal funders of the university’s work from the budget axe President Donald Trump wants to take to them.

But “it’s still early days,” so they’re “working with our colleagues at all the other universities in North Carolina” to stay in touch with the state’s Congressional delegation, Chancellor Carol Folt said Thursday during a break in the morning’s trustee meeting.

As the budget debate unfolds, it appears they will count most on North Carolina’s two U.S. senators, Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, Republicans from Forsyth and Mecklenburg counties, respectively.

Both “are very pro research, as are others,” trustees Chairman Dwight Stone said. “I think they get it.”

Folt added that Burr and Tillis were “actively involved” last year as Congress moved to increase the NIH budget by $1 billion to $2 billion a year. NIH funds medical research throughout U.S. academia and is the biggest single supplier of research grants to UNC-Chapel Hill.

Trump’s staff, however, last week rolled out a budget outline that in fiscal 2018 would cut NIH spending by $5.8 billion a year, from the current $31.7 billion.

Given how much of the agency’s budget goes to delivering on long-term funding contracts, a cut of that magnitude could well mean the flow of new grants would dry up in 2018, a former NIH officials told the journal Science after the outline’s official release.

The director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, Mick Mulvaney, told reporters that NIH funding is cuttable because “we think there’s been mission creep” there, to the point “do things that are outside their core functions.”

Trump himself, via the cover memo that went out over his signature, left no doubt that his main goal is freeing up money for an expansion of the military. The proposed cuts at NIH and elsewhere in the government are meant to offset an additional $54 billion he wants to allot to the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps.

The outline’s research-funding cuts drew immediate criticism last week from officials at Duke University, a private institution. They said it would “slam the brakes on a very important source of economic growth and jobs” in the Triangle.

UNC officials held their fire at time, not surprising given that they work for a public institution that’s part of a state government controlled by Republicans, among them no small number of Trump supporters.

On Thursday, Folt avoided Duke-like criticism, but she did point out that the Triangle in addition to hosting several major research universities also is a base for federal agencies like the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Environmental Health that also face cuts.

Between all those players, “you’re talking tens of thousands of jobs of people working here in a variety of research areas,” she said, adding that the programs involved have ripple effects throughout North Carolina.

She told the trustees that other proposed cuts, in areas like the arts and federal student aid “are vitally important to us.” Afterwards, she noted aid cuts can undercut campus and UNC system hopes of making sure sure a university education is “accessible to people from all income levels.”

She was alluding to a section of the outline that called for reducing the federal work-study aid program “significantly” and proposed taking away a bit more than third of the Pell Grant program’s reserve.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg