Are we doing enough to accelerate medical progress?

The value of innovation has captured the attention of policymakers as they debate the merits of federally funded medical and health research. There is clearly bi-partisan support for research but battle lines have been deeply drawn over funding for research agencies in this tight fiscal climate.

The National Institutes of Health – the world’s leading funder of game-changing basic medical research -  and other agencies contributing to the research pipeline are still affected by sequestration, the ongoing automatic spending cuts that have gutted promising research and shuttered labs. Congressional support for legislation to fund children’s health research demonstrates interest in accelerating medical progress, but the amount is miniscule compared to what’s needed to fuel our engine of discovery. The NIH has lost about 25 percent of its purchasing power in the last decade, jeopardizing the development of lifesaving therapies unleashed by genomics and other scientific breakthroughs. As a result, young scientists unable to secure grants for innovative research are leaving their careers, and institutions are struggling to continue important NIH-funded studies that could help combat national and global health threats.  

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To address the recent spread of polio in the Middle East and Africa, and the growing epidemic of noncommunicable diseases, we need more training and research to effectively put scientific discovery into practice. Sufficient resources will enable the NIH to train more scientists to better address global health issues which also affect us closer to home – heart disease, cancer, mental illness, diabetes and HIV/AIDS. Outbreaks of polio have impacted a nearly three-decade effort to eradicate the disease globally. The World Health Organization has declared the disease an international public health emergency as it re-emerges in Pakistan, Cameroon, Syria and other countries previously free of polio which can kill or cripple the hardest-hit victims.

Why isn’t Congress paying closer attention to the health threats before us?  To accelerate innovation, protect health and save lives, policymakers must close the massive gap between the level of funding necessary to advance medical progress and the token funding levels allocated to research over the last several years.

NIH supports noncommercial preliminary research at universities, academic health centers and other research institutions across the country, and the private sector builds on that research to develop new ways of preventing, diagnosing and treating disease. Yet the NIH budget is lower today than it was in 2010. Is it no longer important to conquer disease, do more for wounded warriors, improve quality of life for individuals suffering from devastating conditions like Alzheimer’s? That sentiment runs deep among many Americans who don’t believe elected officials in Washington are doing enough to combat deadly diseases.  A majority of Americans agree that basic scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government, according to polling commissioned by Research!America. And Americans understand that research is important to job creation and economic recovery.  Why doesn’t the federal budget reflect those truths?

Congress allocates about a third of the nation’s budget through the annual appropriations process.  For fiscal year 2015, will appropriators assign a higher priority to medical research that will save the lives of children suffering from polio, provide state-of-the-art prosthetics for wounded warriors and accident victims, and turn cancer and other deadly disease into manageable chronic conditions?  We have a long and storied history of medical advances but so many yet to be discovered. It’s time for champions of science to engage the public and their elected representatives, and demand a stronger investment in the research that fuels discovery and innovation. 

Porter represented Illinois' 10th Congressional District from 1980 to 2001. He is the chairman of Research!America. Mfume represented Maryland's 7th Congressional District from 1987 to 1996. He is a former president and CEO of the NAACP and is currently a Research!America board member.