America’s proud scientific legacy in the biomedical sciences is in danger.
As three biomedical researchers-in-training, we fear that the current climate of insufficient federal funding for scientific research will deplete our scientific community, stifle the long-term prospects for today’s STEM-educated students, destroy America’s economic competitiveness, and most crucially, prevent medical discoveries for suffering patients.
Our work is motivated by the people who depend on the fruits of our research. One of us studies lung cancer, working in a lab where every tumor specimen was removed from someone’s grandparent, spouse, or sibling. Each patient has a mere 16 percent chance of surviving more than five years, and the countdown is a ticking clock bearing down upon every researcher in the lab.
We each have witnessed firsthand the chasm between severe illnesses and our powerlessness to treat them, and it makes our mission of studying such complex and devastating diseases agonizingly clear.
Lawmakers would do well to consider two under-appreciated challenges of scientific progress: big discoveries take time and they take manpower.
Scientists spend months, even years, incrementally performing experiments until they answer our questions, and we are trained to patiently fight through inevitable failures. Any “breakthrough,” no matter how monumental to the individual scientist, is achieved through decades of intense research performed by hundreds of individuals and aided by numerous public funding initiatives.
The drug Gleevec, which effectively cured chronic myeloid leukemia (CML), exemplifies these challenges. A graduate student discovered CML’s critical feature over 60 years ago, based on a theory postulated in 1914. Researchers across the National Cancer Institute then explored the complex way CML cells cause disease. Thereafter, Gleevec was designed by multiple pharmaceutical company teams, and then additional scientists at academic centers coordinated trials to demonstrate efficacy in patients.
The story of Gleevec echoes that of many treatments available today—the discoveries that facilitated the drug design, and the scientists who made them, were dependent on public grants. This mechanism of government funding enables potentially far-reaching exploratory disease research, in contrast with the focused commercial goals of industry.
However, the U.S. biomedical research engine is faltering. The NIH budget’s purchasing power has declined by 25 percent over the last decade, according to a report from NIH leaders. In fact, despite a recent $1 billion increase, over the past ten years NIH funding has not kept pace with inflation and it remains shamefully below pre-sequestration levels. Nearly 41 percent of U.S. biomedical expenditures currently comes from public sources, and industry investment in this arena has declined, making robust public funding for science critical.
Moreover, other countries have shown a clear commitment to supplanting the U.S. as the world’s biomedical leader. Many are developing their own domestic biomedical research industries, including China, Korea, and Singapore. Accordingly, Asia has increased its share of biomedical spending by 6 percent between 2007 and 2012, while America’s share has decreased by as much.
Today, only one in seven U.S. doctoral graduates can become an independent federally funded researcher.
It is hard to fault our peers for considering alternative career paths. As Dr. Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health, warns: “The most impacted are the young...who are coming into science, and will now abandon the field.”
The infertile environment of research funding in the United States in the coming decades will cultivate an emaciated scientific community while undermining STEM initiatives for students and putting the country at a competitive disadvantage. Deep economic losses, as well as lost opportunities to save lives, will result as we fail to nourish this important industry.
If we want to prevent future patients from losing their hope of being cured, we cannot afford to under invest in science for even one more year.
Fischer, a fourth year PhD student at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences, is currently exploring how patient immune systems are co-opted by tumors to promote lung cancer growth. McKenney studied engineering and public health before becoming an MD-PhD student at Weill Cornell Medical College. She researches how population health and biomedical research can contribute to new approaches in medical care. A sixth year MD-PhD student at Weill Cornell Medical College, Russ is currently earning his PhD in neuroscience studying spinal cord development before completing his MD.