WASHINGTON – Amid anxiety and uncertainty about what President Donald Trump will mean for medical science, researchers are looking to one man for hope: Newt Gingrich.
Trump himself has said precious little about medical research. He has flirted with anti-vaccination rhetoric, and he has stated that what he hears about the National Institutes of Health is “terrible.”
But Gingrich, the former House speaker and Trump confidant, is a longtime booster of medical research.
So in conversations in Washington since the election, scientists and others with a stake in research constantly cite Gingrich, rumored to have a role in the Trump administration, as reason to be optimistic about the new president.
“Newt Gingrich has a strong track record on medical research,” said David Pugach, vice president of federal relations at the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network. “Knowing he is in the mix somewhere is certainly a positive.”
For now, how “in the mix” he is remains nebulous. Gingrich was seen as a contender to be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, as is former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal and Congressman Tom Price. Gingrich ruled out a cabinet position Wednesday, but has hinted that he might take on a more amorphous advisory role.
Whatever role he plays, the scientific community sees an opportunity.
“Gingrich is a tremendous supporter of medical research,” John Edward Porter, a former congressman who chairs the board of Research!America, said at a briefing this week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Like the rest of Washington, researchers and their lobbyists are scrambling to figure out what will happen under President Trump after spending the last few months preparing for Hillary Clinton to win the White House.
Trump, for his part, provided few clues during the campaign about his plans for medical science. In a radio interview last October, he said: “I hear so much about the NIH, and it’s terrible.” At other times, he has said he supports Alzheimer’s research and has given money to organizations that support research into other diseases.
“He has contradicted himself a number of times,” former HHS Secretary Louis Sullivan, who served under President George H.W. Bush, said at the Research!America briefing.
But Gingrich is a constant.
He worked his way into Trump’s circle once it became clear that the business mogul and reality TV star had the inside track for the Republican nomination. He was reportedly considered for the vice presidential slot and, after Trump’s shocking victory last week, he is now widely expected to take some senior role in the new administration.
Gingrich’s NIH bona fides run deep: While he was speaker of the House, he helped oversee the plan to double the agency’s budget by 2002. Last April, he wrote an op-ed in the New York Times calling for the NIH’s funding to be doubled again. He portrayed it as a fiscally conservative policy, because more research would lead to better treatments, which would reduce federal health care spending.
“When it comes to breakthroughs that could cure — not just treat — the most expensive diseases, government is unique. It alone can bring the necessary resources to bear,” Gingrich wrote. “And it is ultimately on the hook for the costs of illness. It’s irresponsible and shortsighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle.”
Gingrich also has a relationship with current NIH Director Francis Collins.
Collins had sought Gingrich’s help to advocate for a 2008 law that prohibited people from being discriminated against in health insurance or employer based on their genetic information, according to a lobbyist who works on medical research policy and knows Gingrich.
“I know this runs deep. It’s not a fad,” said the lobbyist, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak candidly. “He’s there and he has a strong voice. That makes me feel good.”