David Koch: Lamenting Cancer Research Cuts—and Bankrolling the GOPers Behind Them

John Barrett/Zuma


On Friday, conservative billionaire David Koch lamented the deep federal cuts that are expected to impact both the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute—and, by extension, MIT’s new David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research. “If the cutbacks happen, it will significantly diminish the level of research that can be carried on at the Koch Institute,” he said, speaking at the opening of the research center.  Koch, the executive vice president of Koch Industries, implored the deep-pocketed attendees of the ceremony to fill the gap with personal donations: “I earnestly ask you to do all you can to help maintain the superb research at the Koch Institute at its maximum level.”

But who’s responsible for making these crippling cutbacks? Some of the very Republicans that David Koch and his brother, Charles, have bankrolled in their deep-pocketed—and successful—effort to help the GOP win back the House.

House Republicans axed $1.6 billion in NIH funding in the budget bill they passed last month—5.2 percent of the agency’s budget—which will deliver a significant blow to the agency’s National Cancer Institute, according to government officials. Spearheading the effort has been Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the party’s budget-slashing golden boy, whose office tells Bloomberg that the NIH has received enough spending increases—and that “the Democrats’ ‘spending spree’ must stop and that priorities need to be set.”

Over the years, Koch industries has invested heavily in Ryan’s political career. The company is the sixth-largest donor to the Wisconsin Republican, contributing more than $60,000 to his campaign and political action committee since 2000, including $10,000 in the 2010 election cycle. The company also donated $17,000 to Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has proposed an even more radical 37 percent cut in NIH funding. Overall, Koch Industries gave over $1.5 million to federal Republican candidates in 2010 alone, along with $1.2 million to the Republican Governors Association.

Cancer research advocates are horrified by the potential impact of the GOP’s cuts. “These are blind cuts that take us exactly in the wrong direction; they are wrong-headed and short-sighted,” John Porter, a former GOP congressman from Illinois, told Bloomberg. And the head of the National Cancer Institute has warned that the Republicans’ cuts could significantly curtail cancer breakthroughs at the NIH—the center of American medical research and the biggest research institution of its kind in the world.

Koch, however, is giving the Republicans a pass for making such cutbacks. In his Friday speech at MIT, he explained that the “serious cutbacks” to cancer research are “due to the massive deficits the federal government is incurring.” The implication, in other words, is that lawmakers have no choice in slashing spending. The reality is that Republicans have railed about the deficit only at opportune times—ignoring the issue when it comes to tax breaks for the wealthy, for instance, while banging the drum for cutting government spending directed at scientific research, social services, and other vital programs.

Koch, a prostate-cancer survivor, has given hundreds of millions of dollars to fund cancer research. But this isn’t the first time that his devotion to the cause has clashed with his politics. In 2004, he received a presidential appointment to the National Cancer Advisory Board of the National Cancer Institute itself. But in 2010, Koch resigned from the board under public pressure, after a New Yorker article revealed that one of his companies, Georgia-Pacific, produces formaldehyde and lobbied against a federal effort to designate the substance as a known human carcinogen. 

In a rare interview with the New York Times in connection with opening of the MIT cancer center, Koch insisted that his personal commitment to cancer research is distinct from—and takes precedence over—his political giving. “I read stuff about me and I say, ‘God, I’m a terrible guy,'” Koch said. “And then I come here and everybody treats me like I’m a wonderful fellow, and I say, ‘Well, maybe I’m not so bad after all.'” But if the Republicans that Koch is helping to elect are also bent on undermining the federally supported research he claims to be passionate about, Koch may want to reasses what his philanthropic priorities really are.

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