publication date: Mar. 17, 2017

Conversation with the Cancer Letter

John Porter: If you want to make America great, you don’t take America’s worldwide scientific lead and cut it

john-edward-porterAs former chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, then-Rep. John Porter (R-IL) oversaw the doubling of the NIH budget over five years.

Now, President Trump’s budget proposal seeks to drop the NIH budget to $25.9 billion. That’s $1.2 billion below the FY 2003 level, the year when the doubling was completed. These are absolute numbers. Adjusting for inflation will erode these funds even more.

Porter, who has been a vocal supporter of funding for biomedical research after leaving Congress in 2001, noted that cancer research has strong support on Capitol Hill. Nonetheless, cancer groups must come out and make certain that their voices are heard. Porter said.

Porter spoke with Paul Goldberg, editor and publisher of The Cancer Letter.


Paul Goldberg:

I was there when you were fighting to double the NIH budget, sitting at the press table, hoping you would succeed. This is a terrible reporter question: How does this feel?

John Porter:

I don’t think the budget that the President sent is serious at all. It’s playing to his base. It just says what his base wants to hear. I don’t think Congress has any intention to adopt it and support it. So, I am not overly concerned that the things that he is proposing in his budget would happen. I think that’s very remote.

Support for medical research is totally bipartisan. And [Sen.] Roy Blunt [(R-MO), chair of the Senate appropriations subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies] and [Rep.] Tom Cole [(R-OK) chair of the House appropriations subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies] both are big supporters of medical research.

In the Labor-HHS bill, there are about 800 line items. Forty of those are NIH. If you have one high priority in the bill—and that’s their high priority in the bill—the rest of it doesn’t matter. Even if you get a low allocation, you can plus-up that account and not plus-up the others.

I stepped down as chair of Research!America last night after 12 years and got a chance to talk about it, and I said, “I am optimistic. I don’t see that there is going to be any big cut in medical research. In fact, there could well be a $1 billion or $2 billion increase, depending upon the allocations.”

Presidents propose things, but their budgets have no weight in legislation. It’s the Congress that writes budgets. I just don’t see this as having any legs whatsoever. I think there is no support for it in Congress.

It illustrates to me this president’s ignorance of government, and his lack of discipline to even begin to study how things work. It’s just more campaigning.



Hearing this, I am worried that people will take this as an assurance that “Oh well, it’s going to be okay,” and that’s how bad things happen.


Oh, no! No, no, no! What has to happen is that people have to protest—loudly! They have to let their representatives know that these are all bad things.

Another area where I am very concerned, which has nothing to do directly with science is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. He proposes zeroing that out. I think it’s some of the best spent money in government. PBS is a national treasure, and I think people should go up to their representatives and say, “Don’t you dare cut that!”



What about cancer centers? If you think about it, in any congressional district, the cancer center is one of the jewels, one of the pillars, politically. How does he think that the House and Senate members are going to forsake their cancer centers?


Ha! Well, he just doesn’t understand the support for cancer research out there, which is universal. I talked with Joe Biden last night. He actually did a 45-minute speech, and focused on the cancer initiative that he was in charge of.

I just think that people have to have their voices heard. They should have had their voices heard in the last election. Maybe the outcome would have been different. People have to get up off their chairs and really get involved in the process, and their elected representatives will then understand. That’s what counts.



How do we do this? Who is leading the charge right now? During the 1998 March [The March–Coming Together to Conquer Cancer, a gathering of 250,000 people on the National Mall and a million more in grassroots events nationwide], you were in charge of a lot of it. Who is doing this? Are you going to lead the charge?


Well, you know, there is a march for science, coming up on April 22. All the organizations that I know of are involved in it, including Research!America. That sends its own message, if people participate. If they stay home and say, “Oh well,” that’s a message.

All the organizations—and there are many of them—have to get out and be heard. Especially cancer groups, like you.



I am just a dog-faced reporter; what do I know? Except I was there when you were trying to get the doubling done. And, by the way, the magnitude of this cut isn’t too far off from the raise that you got for NIH.


I know. It will take us below the baseline that we achieved by doubling. That doesn’t even take inflation into account.





You can’t just dismiss it as a political document. You have to go out there and protest every little bit of it.

There are protests at town halls that Congress men and women hold. That’s a great place to send a message. People have to go out and go to those things and say, “Wait a minute, this is wrong, this is one we shouldn’t be doing!”

If they sit home, that’s another message.



Also, thinking deeper about this, when you were working on the doubling, science was in a very different place than it is now. And here we are, cutting science when it’s actually producing very interesting outcomes.


If you want to make America great, you don’t take America’s worldwide scientific lead and cut it. You support it and increase it.

You know, it’s incredible!

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