Funding for basic scientific research remains critical bipartisan priority
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In America’s polarized politics, is there a cause around which policymakers can find common ground? As the new Congress and administration seek wise investments that make the American people and economy stronger, they should start with basic biomedical research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

History demonstrates decades of strong bipartisan support for NIH research, a trend that should be sustained. This support reflects an obvious reality: Diseases like Alzheimer’s, autism, PTSD, and addiction don’t affect “red” or “blue” communities — they affect us all as people, parents, doctors, constituents and a nation. Less well known, perhaps, is the reality that America’s medical research sector has been a powerhouse of jobs and economic returns in every state for decades — precisely because we have invested in maintaining the nation’s status as the world’s leader in biomedical research.

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As a psychiatrist and brain scientist, I know too well that understanding and treating brain diseases is urgent: The brain, the most complex biological structure in the universe, drives the world’s most costly conditions, which impose staggering personal and economic tolls. The World Health Organization estimated that 1 billion people are afflicted by neurological or psychiatric disorders. Worldwide, Alzheimer’s disease alone costs $605 billion annually, and mental health treatments will cost $6 trillion annually by the year 2030. At home, today’s opioid addiction pandemic ensnares more than 2.1 million American families.

Better health outcomes depend most on long-term government investment in science. Over the past decade, with strong federal support, NIH research has produced remarkable new understanding of brain function and disease. Today, rapidly emerging tools and technologies make neuroscience especially well-positioned to achieve progress, so strong investment will continue building crucial momentum. For example, recent advances in molecular, circuit and imaging techniques are making the brain’s complexity ever clearer, and scientists are now able to connect this to revelations that will translate into improved clinical care.

While corporate research and development is essential, it does not replace the role of federal science investment, but rather complements it. Mergers between major companies have consolidated the industry, reducing the overall investment in novel medications and technologies. In brain research, virtually all companies have pulled back, stating they need precisely what only federally funded basic research produces: new understanding and validated targets. 

NIH research looks for answers to questions that are too early to be tied clearly to profitability. These efforts require years — typically decades — of painstaking research, but ultimately pay off for both people and the economy. For instance, years of basic research into brain function and structure, relying heavily on animal models, drove the initial creation of deep brain stimulation (DBS), a treatment today helping thousands of Parkinson’s disease patients, generating profits for the device industry, and holding further hope for treating depression and other mental disorders. And, today’s clinical DBS successes are returning to the basic science bench for more research funded by NIH, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation. Why? Clinician-scientists have created stimulators that treat patients and simultaneously monitor patient brain function. New basic findings stemming from that information will create new cellular understanding and spur yet more novel and more effective disease therapies in industry.

This healthy, symbiotic partnership powers one of America’s great economic engines: the medical innovation sector. Science advocacy group Research!America reported the sector employs 1 million U.S. citizens, generates $84 billion in wages and salaries, and exports $90 billion in goods and services to the rest of the world. Federal investment in basic research produces sizable dividends. NIH spending in 2011 alone produced $62.13 billion in new economic activity, one of the best returns on investment for any federal outlay.

Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies invest quickly in new basic research findings to fuel additional R&D, so much so that increasing the federal investment in basic research by $1 fuels an additional $8.38 of industry investment. Further, U.S. leadership is crucial for global competitiveness and scientific advancement. The global scientific community has always looked to the U.S. as the measuring stick against which to set their own investment, yet we now risk having other nations surpass the U.S. with their investment in medical R&D and the economic development driven by such world leadership. 

Basic science is fortunate to have strong champions across the aisle. Together, our lawmakers are positioned to ensure NIH continues to lead — both for families struggling with disease and our country’s economic future. Now is the time to increase federal funding for basic science to ensure that future generations can enjoy profoundly healthier, wealthier lives.

Eric J. Nestler is dean for academic and scientific affairs and director of the Friedman Brain Institute at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, as well as president of the Society for Neuroscience. 


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.