Poised for big breakthroughs, US scientists find dwindling support

With the midterm elections now behind us, we could not help but notice that one crucial policy issue was not considered in a serious or thoughtful way on the campaign trail: today’s woeful funding shortfalls in science. 

The American research enterprise, long the world’s gold standard for scientific progress, is at risk of slipping behind. For over a decade, the federal government has pulled back financial support for biomedical research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget has failed even to keep pace with the cost of conducting research; factoring in inflation, it has declined 24 percent since 2003. Yes, we need to shrink the federal deficit, but by targeting research spending, this country risks trading a budgetary deficit for a discovery deficit. 

ADVERTISEMENT
Our academic medical centers at The Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland have made immense contributions to science, including the discovery of restriction enzymes, which gave birth to genetic engineering; the identification of the three types of polio virus; the discovery of a new class of drugs to treat breast cancer; and the development of vaccines for swine flu. Without NIH-funded basic research, none of these advances would have reached a single patient. Yet in fiscal year 2014, our two medical schools took a sequestration hit of about 10 percent on average of our total NIH funding. As we stare down the public-health threat of Ebola virus, we are calling on Congress to rethink its budgetary priorities and make biomedical research a national mandate.                                                                                  

Currently, NIH and other science agencies are operating under a continuing resolution, set to expire in December. This scenario creates tremendous uncertainty. Academic institutions like ours need consistency in federal funding so that we can align the size of our training programs to fit our future research workforce. 

Fortunately, we are seeing a resurgence of interest in Congress in the health of our biomedical research ecosystem, as evidenced most notably by the 21st Century Cures Initiative in the House of Representatives and the American Cures Act in the Senate, which would augment federal appropriations with a mandatory trust fund dedicated to steady growth. If passed, this bill would increase annual funding for federal agencies at a rate of GDP-indexed inflation, plus 5 percent. We welcome this renewed attention to this critical sector of the economy and urge policymakers to move forward to implement these crucial solutions. 

What if we approached investment in science as a needed ingredient for long-term prosperity? More than half of U.S. economic growth over the last 50 years is attributable to scientific progress and new technologies, economists estimate. Between the medicines and devices generated and the jobs created, each dollar spent in our labs translates into several dollars for the nation’s economy. In fact, the U.S. Department of Commerce says 36 jobs result from every $1 million in academic research spending. Nonetheless, we are seeing our scientists’ support get squeezed year after year, while countries such as China, Brazil, India and South Korea continue to allocate more money for research and development. 

Some in Congress argue that we need to reform our ecosystem before requesting more resources — after all, the $30 billion doled out by NIH is a great deal of money. First, note that federal grants do not cover the full cost of conducting research. On average, our institutions underwrite 30 cents on the dollar. However, we in academia acknowledge that we need to take a fresh look at how we operate, beginning with the training of young scientists. We are taking steps to maximize translational efforts and industry partnerships and to lower our research overhead. We are promoting team science and reaching out to private foundations, philanthropists and non-NIH institutes to diversify our funding sources. We are doing our part to adapt, but our federal partners must act as well. 

Preserving America’s leadership in global biomedical research will require bold, decisive actions and strategic planning for the long term. Medical science is entering a powerful new era of discovery, with technology enabling huge advances in disciplines such as metabolomics, proteomics and epigenetics. Our institutions need sufficient resources to seize these massive opportunities and continue advancing knowledge to improve human health. Unfortunately, campuses are scrambling to recruit and retain gifted scientists and to provide them the state-of-the-art tools they need. 

We call upon policymakers to restore the lost ground of 10 years of flat funding and demonstrate a commitment to sustained, robust financial support that matches the unprecedented scientific opportunity at hand. While we cannot recoup the losses of the past few years, we can start investing now in the next big breakthroughs. 

Rothman is the Frances Watt Baker, M.D., and Lenox D. Baker Jr., M.D. Dean of the Medical Faculty, vice president for medicine of The Johns Hopkins University, and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine.  Reece, MD, PhD, MBA, is the vice president for Medical Affairs, University of Maryland; the John Z. and Akiko K. Bowers Distinguished Professor, and Dean of the School of Medicine.

More in Healthcare

It's time to support breastfeeding

Read more »