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Biomedical Researchers Ponder Future After Trump Election

The federal government spends more than $30 billion a year to fund the National Institutes of Health. What changes are in store under a new administration?
The federal government spends more than $30 billion a year to fund the National Institutes of Health. What changes are in store under a new administration?

What could the world of medical research look like under a Trump administration?

It's hardly an idle question.

The federal government spends more than $30 billion a year to fund the National Institutes of Health. That's the single largest chunk of federal research funding spent outside the Pentagon's sphere of influence.

Policy insiders confronted that question — albeit with an acute shortage of actual data — Monday at a meeting of health advocates in New York City.

The biotech and pharmaceutical companies, which are at the end of the drug-development pipeline, see encouraging signs for their enterprises. The stock market didn't swoon. Oft-mentioned tax breaks could conceivably encourage drugmakers that have been harboring hundreds of billions of dollars in profits overseas, to bring some of that money back to the U.S.

And the Trump campaign's anti-regulation rhetoric also rings as good news in the ears of Big Pharma.

Hillary Clinton's campaign to rein in prescription drug prices also looks to be on the ropes, which may be more welcome news for companies than for consumers who have been shocked by rapid price increases.

At the meeting, Kay Holcombe, senior vice president of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, a trade group, said she hoped Clinton's drug-price campaign would fade. Holcombe told attendees that she prefers "a nonshrieking environment."

What's good for the pharmaceutical and biotech industry may not necessarily appeal to President-elect Donald Trump's supporters, however. It doesn't translate to rapid gains for struggling workers in the Rust Belt.

And there are fewer tea leaves to read when it comes to Trump's support for universities and other government-funded parts of the nation's biomedical enterprise. His campaign said little about research and development in general, or health research in particular.

"The fact that he did not take an ideological position may be a positive thing," said Tanisha Carino, vice president for U.S. public policy at U.K.-based GlaxoSmithKline. Perhaps there's a blank slate that can be influenced by people who care deeply about these issues.

She noted that science is an international endeavor (her company alone operates in 150 countries), and it could be harmed if isolationism were to hit medical research and related industries.

Antibiotic resistance, for example, is a global problem, with drug-resistant germs emerging and spreading all over the world. "We as a country can't solve that," she said.

And , vice chancellor for science policy at the University of California, San Francisco, said he hopes there's an opening to remind the Trump administration and its supporters in Congress that NIH research dollars are spent in their districts and support robust economies.

He also said he'd argue that bolstering basic biomedical research could speed up innovation and reduce the expense of drug development. "Let's get back to the basics," Yamamoto said. "That's the kind of message that I would try to send."

Yamamoto is among a group of prominent scientists who had drawn up policy plans for the next administration. Yamamoto acknowledged that he wasn't exactly expecting to have the conversation with the Trump transition team.

There is at least one person close to Trump who has long been an advocate for a significant cash infusion for medical research: Newt Gingrich. He's on some shortlists for a position that could direct his attention elsewhere. Even so, people at the advocates' meeting in New York nodded in ready agreement when someone suggested that he's one key person to watch.

You can contact Richard Harris with comments: rharris@npr.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.
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