Did the NIH director from the Bush administration say the sequester would set back medical science for a generation?

Obama official new“Even President Bush’s director of the National Institutes of Health says these cuts will set back medical science for a generation.”
–President Obama, Weekly Address Feb. 23, 2013



The president accurately paraphrases a misleading “Wonkblog” headline that exaggerates the effect on science of the sequester.

The Facts:

Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog published an interview with Dr. Elias Zerhouni on Feb. 21.  The interview carried the title “Former NIH director: The sequester will set back medical science for a generation.”  Zerhouni served as the director of the National Institutes of Health from 2002 to 2008 in the Bush administration.

In the course of the interview, Zerhouni gave a description of the sequester’s impact on the NIH.  The NIH typically does five-year research grants, so roughly 20 percent of those come due for termination in a given year.  Most of the annual budget for the NIH thus goes to meet the obligations for existing grants, leaving about 20 percent to renew existing research with a new grant or issue a new research grant.  The sequester would have its effect on the roughly 10 percent of the budget going to brand new research grants, cutting that amount by about 80 percent.

As for affecting medical science for a generation, Zerhouni made two statements using the term.  The first had to do with the effect of the cuts on young researchers in particular:


The most impacted are the young, new investigator scientists, who are coming into science, and will now abandon the field of science. There will be a generational gap created.


Zerhouni’s second statement about generations had to do with the effects of the cuts on medical science (bold emphasis added):


If you take 8 percent of that 10 percent, it’s going to come from new science, new people, young investigators; we are going to maim our innovation capabilities if you do these abrupt deep cuts at NIH. It will impact science for generations to come.


Analyzing the Rhetoric

The common way to interpret “set back medical science for a generation” is that medical science will, in effect, essentially stall for about 25 years.

Dictionary.com offers two definitions worth considering:


1.  the entire body of individuals born and living at about the same time: the postwar generation.

2.  the term of years, roughly 30 among human beings, accepted as the average period between the birth of parents and the birth of their offspring.


With charitable interpretation bordering on the acrobatic, we can interpret Mr. Obama as saying the sequester will hold back medical science for all of us.  That interpretation counts as very charitable because the president’s words would mean just that if he omitted any reference to “a generation.”  Including that term for most will direct their thinking toward a span of time–the second definition.  The deception occurs because of equivocal language, one of the fallacies of ambiguity.

Dr. Zerhouni made no reference to holding back medical science for any length of time.  The title over Dylan Matthews’ interview of Zerhouni misleads the reader.  Mr. Obama’s adoption of the same language deceives his listeners as well, regardless of whether the president intended that effect.

Instead of suggesting medical science is set back to some unspecified degree for generations, the president’s address will communicate to listeners that the sequester will cost us 25 years of medical advancement.


“President Bush’s director of the National Institutes of Health says these cuts will set back medical science for a generation”

True Statement Maximum Charity FallacyIcon Ambiguity

We think it most likely that the president intended to communicate that Dr. Zerhouni said medical science would be held up for years by the sequester.  That’s false, for it isn’t what Zerhouni said.

Clarification March 1, 2013:  Reworded the sentence preceding the “Summary” section to improve clarity.  It formerly read, in part, “Instead of affecting medical science to some unspecified degree for generations …”


Obama, Barack. “WEEKLY ADDRESS: Congress Must Act Now to Stop the Sequester.” The White House. The White House, 23 Feb. 2013. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

Matthews, Dylan. “Former NIH Director: The Sequester Will Set Back Medical Science for a Generation.” Wonkblog. The Washington Post Company, 21 Feb. 2013. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.

Generation.” Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com, n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2013.


  1. Jim

    You interpret “set back” to mean the same as “freeze” or “halt”, but that interpretation is not the only reasonable one. The headline could also be taken to mean that the sequester has a negative effect on medical science, and that the effect will be felt for a generation, as the affected cohort of researchers moves (or fails to move) through their careers. That interpretation is both reasonable and an accurate summary of Zerhouni’s statements.

    1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

      We took that interpretation into account (it is, in fact, the one that results in the ratings we applied, which was true given moderately charitable interpretation, encouraging a fallacy of ambiguity), but it isn’t as reasonable as you portray it. The idea is adequately communicated by simply saying that medical science is set back, period. After that it’s a domino effect and the effects are felt, as Zerhouni said, for generations. It’s an awkward rendering you’re selling, because once you add “for a generation” we have to figure out which sense of “generation” is in play. As we wrote, the more natural interpretation, and the one most people would take from President Obama’s speech, was that medical science would be set back about 25 years. It’s obvious that we didn’t simply interpret “set back” to mean “freeze” or “halt” when you consider that we looked at the statement as saying the influence on medical science would affect a generation of people. But we do think people will naturally interpret the president to mean medical science would be set back for a period of years (allowing license for hyperbole). It’s easily a superior fit for the specific grammar. This is the type of ambiguity that politicians love to employ because it affords plausible deniability.

      The Wonkblog headline is simply misleading for the same reason. But at least in that case one can refer to the text of the story for clarification.

      1. Bryan W. White (Post author)

        Make that “maximal” instead of “moderate” for the charitable interpretation.


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