NIH Director Francis Collins has been saying that if only the agency’s budget hadn’t been cut, that we would already have an Ebola vaccine. He tried this line out during recent Congressional testimony, and apparently liked it enough that he expanded on it in an article for the Huffington Post. Collins’ statements have been fodder for election-season attack ads, naturally. Personally I endorse the take on this from Michael Eisen at Berkeley (emphasis added):
. . .it’s time to call this for what it is: complete bullshit.
First, let’s deal with the most immediate assertion – that if there had been more funds there would be an Ebola vaccine today. Collins argues we’d be a few years ahead of where they are today, and that, instead of preparing to enter phase 1 trials today, they’d have done this two years ago. But last time I checked, there was a reason we do clinical trials, which is to determine if therapies are safe and effective. And, crucially, many of these fail (how many times have we heard about HIV vaccines that were effective in animals). Thus, even if you believe the only thing holding up development of the Ebola vaccine was funds, it’s still false to argue that with more money we’d have an Ebola vaccine. Vaccine and drug development just simply doesn’t work this way. There are long lists of projects, in both the public and private sector that have been very well-funded, and still failed.
It is a gross overtrivialization of even the directed scientific process involved in developing vaccines to suggest that simply by spending more money on something you are guaranteed a product. And, if I were in Congress, frankly I’d be sick of hearing this kind of baloney, and would respond with a long list of things I’d been promised by previous NIH Directors if only we’d spend more money on them.
Eisen would have have the case made for basic research, emphasizing that without decades of funding for it that we wouldn’t even be in the position to try making an Ebola vaccine at all. But that doesn’t grab enough headlines. Better to pander to the Disease of the Week, and tell everyone that if only you had more cash, you most certainly would have done something about it by now.
I’ll go one further. Here’s a graph of the NIH budget over the last twenty years (inflation adjusted). You will note that the large rise during the last part of the Clinton years and during G. W. Bush’s first term; the fact that this trajectory did not continue has been the source of a good deal of turmoil over the years. There was also a blast of funding in the stimulus-spending package in 2009, which has also not been repeated, and I believe that this has caused similar disruption. Neglecting that, the NIH budget has been in the $30-$35 billion range (inflation-adjusted) for many years, although it is down around 10% from its peak in 2004. (Note that 2013 is estimated in this chart – the real number dips just below the $30 billion line).
This, then, is what a “slashed budget” looks like, from above, anyway. The classic Washington way of referring to budget cuts, though, comes from smaller increases than were planned. So if a program was originally budgeted to get 10% more funding, but it only ends up getting 5% more, than everyone who advocates for it goes out and says that spending on it was cut in half. And if it was supposed to stay even and instead shrinks by 2%, well, you can imagine. That’s when the so-called “Washington Monument” strategy kicks in – if they decide to freeze or cut the Park Service budget, the first thing you do is close the Washington Monument, so as to make a highly visible and annoying case for your agency to have the money, anyway.
Now, there is room to complain about the allocations inside the NIH itself – there are programs where less money really is being spent. But while the overall budget for the agency has declined, it hasn’t done so in the massive clear-cutting fashion that you might imagine if you read, for example, editorials by Francis Collins. But he’s just doing what every other agency head does – bang the drum for their vital, essential funding. It would be a better world if Michael Eisen’s recommendation of pitching basic research funding were to be effective, but I’m not sure that we live there. Where we live, we get. . .well, bullshit instead.
Update: man, the comments are rolling in on this one. So to clarify things, let me say that I think that NIH is a good thing, and should be well funded. But I also think that trying to get it funded by saying that we surely would have had an Ebola vaccine by now is not a good thing to do – it’s not very effective, for one thing, because this is the same sort of story that always gets used, and it’s also not very accurate. I realize that good things are often accomplished less exalted means, but you’d hope that there would be better means than this.