publication date: Mar. 17, 2017

Conversation with the Cancer Letter

Blase Polite: This was put together by folks who have no sense of how research is done

Blase PoliteIf Congress follows the fiscal 2018 budget priorities outlined by the White House, the United States will lose its standing as the powerhouse of biomedical research, said Blase Polite, chair of the American Society of Clinical Oncology Government Relations Committee.

“If that science doesn’t happen, the drug companies never come up with these drugs, and so, you’re going to devastate future cures, and you’re going to devastate our talent pool of young researchers that do that science,” said Polite, associate professor of medicine and associate director of the Center for Clinical Cancer Genetics at the University of Chicago.

“That will make us a second-rate scientific country. That shouldn’t be acceptable to anybody.”

Polite spoke with Matthew Ong, a reporter with The Cancer Letter.


Matthew Ong:

What was your initial reaction when you saw the White House budget proposal this morning?

Blase Polite:

Shocked. Literally. I mean, I saw it this morning at about 6:30 a.m. and I was absolutely shocked.

Several of my colleagues filled in my basket with equal shock—and these are folks who come from across the political spectrum—that these numbers came out the way they did.

It’s almost an impossible number to even wrap your head around, that they would be looking at this level of cut at NIH.



Did you have any indication ahead of the release that this would be the outcome?


No, we didn’t know that it was going to look like that. You almost had to check it twice to make sure that you weren’t missing something. So yes, shocked, and feeling that this was absurd.

That’s probably the second reaction to this, and really, the feeling that this was put together by folks who really have no sense of how the biomedical research infrastructure works in this country.



Have you gotten a sense of how the administration is justifying these proposed cuts?


No, I have not seen anything other than what they’ve put out, and that they’re talking about reorganizing and reprioritizing NIH. But what that means, I don’t know.



What’s the chance that Congress might listen to the White House on this?


Zero. I mean, if you look at where the 2017 budget is looking to come out, right, when the Senate passed the $34 billion NIH appropriations—the thought that they would go down to $25 billion?

There’s not a single appropriator on the House or Senate side that would even put that number down on a piece of paper.

I think they would view it as just a naïve budget that needs some education from Congress to the administration about how the biomedical infrastructure works.



In a hypothetical scenario where this budget proposal comes true, what’s going to happen to the cancer research enterprise and patients?


Let’s look at the one that probably worries me more than anything else, from a big-picture perspective: this is a generational-level cut, and what I mean by that is, a cut of this magnitude will basically devastate what we could see 15, 20 years down the road.

I mean, it’s going to have immediate impact, but the research that should’ve been done that won’t be done, we can’t even contemplate what the effect of that is going to be.

And most importantly, who’s going to get hurt by this? You’re going to kill the young scientists. That crop of innovative, energetic young scientists who are thinking about going into basic science research or going into research along this line, and all of a sudden, a cut of this magnitude where you’re going to be funding 5 percent of grants, 7 percent of grants? Who in the right mind is going to go into that field? It would kill it.

Those folks will go off, they’ll go into industry. You’ll produce something in industry, but you’re never going to produce the basic science work that leads to the breakthroughs.

I mean, you look at where we are now with immunotherapies. All of that stuff, anything that we’re doing now, all these drugs that are coming that so many of us have seen have tremendous impact—all have their genesis in basic science, NIH-funded research from 20, 25, 30 years ago.

If that science doesn’t happen, the drug companies never come up with these drugs, and so, you’re going to devastate future cures, and you’re going to devastate our talent pool of young researchers that do that science.

That will make us a second-rate scientific country. That shouldn’t be acceptable to anybody.



What are the next steps for ASCO?


Once everybody gets past the shock phase, I think it’s really to get a reality check, talk to our friends on the Hill, and I think what we will quickly learn is that this is going to be, essentially, ignored.

I don’t think it’s going to be, “We’re going to start from the president’s budget and then negotiate,” up to some number, I think we’re going to negotiate from the 2017 budget, which, again, we hope comes out at the $34 billion, and then we will be doing our negotiations from there, not from the president’s budget.

I suspect, when all the smoke clears, this is just going to be absolutely ignored, and we’re going to go on like we would’ve gone on, even though we haven’t come up with our consensus number yet, because the process is all the groups get together to come up with a consensus for NIH’s number.

That’s a process we follow for good reason, for many years, because we don’t want this to be disease against disease. That’s not a winning fight for anybody, and so we come up with what we believe biomedical research funding should be.

We’ll come up with a target number and we will all be up on the Hill preaching that number to the folks on the Hill.

At the end of the day, I think this is just going to be a lot of sound and a lot of noise that will end up meaning nothing.



Have you heard from the rank-and-file Republicans on the Hill and what they might think of this?


Not yet. I have not yet been on with them. We’ve got our folks up on the Hill today; I haven’t heard anything back yet.

But again, having been with them and enough discussions with them over the last 10 years, I can’t imagine that their reaction is going to be any different from the one that I just gave you.

And I remember doing this in 2010 when the Tea Party wave came in, and there was a lot of resistance to NIH, and it took several years of many of us—and many of the organizations you’re talking to—going up on the Hill and educating them on biomedical research, letting them understand that the impact that this money has on the local economy, the jobs that are provided by this etc. to get the point where, when we were back up there two years later, 2012, 2013, these folks got it. Tea Party, not Tea Party, left wing, right wing, didn’t matter. Everyone got NIH.

So it takes a bit of education, and I think that’s probably where the administration is right now.

I think there’s a group of people putting together budgets that are looking at numbers and don’t really understand the critical importance of biomedical research, again, not just for, of course, our patients and the cures that won’t happen if you do this kind of cuts, but also for our position as a first-world country.

If you kill this type of research and if you do this kind of stuff to NIH, you will not be a competitive country, going forward.

If you cannot compete in the biomedical sciences, you cannot be a first-rate country in the future. I say there is no question about that.

Once that sets in, and people understand that, then they quickly get to this point, where I think they all will even back off this, once they understand it better.

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