In a fourth-floor lab at Washington State University’s College of Pharmacy in Spokane, a group of six young women from at least three countries peer into genes and analyze tobacco products to find out why some people are more likely to get cancer from smoking than others.
The students, most of whom are doctoral candidates in pharmacological sciences, have research projects funded almost entirely by grants from the National Institutes of Health, one of the agencies facing deep cuts under President Donald Trump’s budget proposal.
“If we can’t do the research, we can’t graduate,” said Ana Vergara, a fourth-year doctoral student, speaking to U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during a lab visit Tuesday.
President Donald Trump’s proposed budget would cut 19 percent of NIH funding, about 80 percent of which funds research projects. In 2016, WSU received 83 NIH grants totaling nearly $28 million, mostly for research.
Murray toured the lab Tuesday and spoke to WSU Spokane leaders about the impact research funding cuts would have on their work.
“When I saw the president’s budget, like many of you, I was stunned,” she said.
Yadira Perez Paramo was one of the doctoral students in the lab, looking at cancer-causing compounds in tobacco products. She’s in the U.S. from Mexico on a Fulbright scholarship, but told Murray she would have chosen to study in another country if she’d known research funding wouldn’t be available for her here.
“We really have a generation of scientists at risk with a cut like this,” said Marcos Frank, professor and chairman of biomedical science at WSU’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine.
Philip Lazarus, chairman of WSU’s Department of Pharmacy Sciences, called the cuts “naive.” He runs the tobacco lab and said the growth of scientific research in Spokane universities drives job creation and could spur the development of a biotechnology sector here.
“People won’t want to go into science if they know that there’s no jobs,” he said.
It’s not just Democrats who are opposed.
Fifth District Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, said at a roundtable discussion with constituents Monday she did not support Trump’s proposed cuts to NIH grant dollars.
Both Murray and McMorris Rodgers championed a piece of legislation in the House of Representatives called the 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed by President Barack Obama after passing both chambers of Congress in December. The measure included funding the NIH, with nearly $5 billion over a 10-year period for research grants.
“We’re on the verge of some very exciting breakthroughs,” McMorris Rodgers said. “I just don’t see it happening. There’s so much bipartisan support.”
Lazarus said the program already has seen a drop in applications from international students for next year. Many are choosing to go to Europe or Canada because there’s a perception scientific research isn’t valued in the U.S., he said.
“When you hear about 20 percent cuts to NIH, that certainly adds to that message,” he said.
Staff writer Kip Hill contributed reporting. Contact Rachel Alexander at (509) 459-5406 or firstname.lastname@example.org.