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Overhead Cap Considered

As a new way to cut the US National Institutes of Health budget, the Trump Administration is reportedly looking to limit what the agency spends on indirect costs, reports Ed Yong at the Atlantic.

In its budget proposal earlier this year, the Trump Administration suggested cutting the NIH budget by some 20 percent for fiscal year 2018. But, lawmakers and researchers alike called such a proposal concerning. Harold Varmus, a former agency director, argued that such a deep cut would leave research projects unfinished and ground nascent research careers.

However, the administration has said that changing overhead payments could balance out some of the cuts. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price argued that by limiting indirect cost payments, NIH could fund more grants, even if its overall budget shrank. Those payments cover the expense of running a research lab, such as of equipment, utilities, and administrative costs.

Yong now adds at the Atlantic that the Trump Administration is weighing a 10 percent cap on indirect costs. While he notes that indirect costs have been a source of controversy with complaints of inefficiencies, he likens such a cap to "using a sledgehammer to attack a problem that demands a scalpel."

In a statement, the administration tells Yong that a final decision has yet to be made.

Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, adds that such cap isn't likely to be instituted. "All presidents may propose what they will, but it's Congress who decides," she says.

And Congress is often loath to cut biomedical research spending — it recently increased the NIH budget for fiscal year 2017 despite the Trump administration's calls for cuts.