Congress should massively ramp up funding for the NIH

Congress should massively ramp up funding for the NIH
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The scientific community is awaiting the final act of this year’s budgeting drama that will determine research funding levels for laboratories across the nation, now that Congress has passed a preliminary federal budget.  

Despair had weighed on biomedical researchers when the White House proposed taking an ax to the budget of the National Institutes of Health, but it was replaced by a sense of relief, even victory, when Congress rejected the president’s plan in favor of modest increases for the NIH.

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Now it is up to the Senate and House Appropriations Committees to allocate the funds. But there should be no cause for celebration if we essentially maintain the status quo. 

At a time when science is on the cusp of achieving breakthroughs that can vastly improve health and change our world for the better, a negligible bump in the NIH budget is simply inadequate; it’s a lost opportunity. Given today’s scientific, medical, and economic facts, Congress should massively ramp up funding for the NIH over the next several years.  

Every American should know what they are getting for their tax dollars that support the National Institutes of Health: victories in the war against disease. Millions of survivors of cancer, stroke, HIV/AIDS, and numerous other illnesses have the NIH to thank for their health.  

This is because NIH-backed researchers at academic medical centers have been unraveling the mysteries of disease and generating scientific innovations that make new drugs and treatments possible. Today’s breakthrough medicines emerge from the labs of medical schools and research institutions that are largely funded by the NIH.

 

For Americans the greatest single threat to life comes from disease, yet the NIH budget is less than one percent of the federal budget at $34 billion. About 610,000 Americans die of heart disease each year; 595,000 die of cancer; and more than 30 million Americans suffer from diabetes, putting them at risk of premature death. Alzheimer’s disease, increasingly prevalent in the U.S., afflicts 5.4 million Americans, and superbugs bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics infected 2 million Americans last year, causing 23,000 deaths.

 

Without minimizing the horror of terrorism, the toll of Americans killed by terrorists in the United States, since 2000, numbers less than 4,000. During the post-9/11 era, this country has spent $4.8 trillion on national security related to the war on terrorism, according to a Brown University analysis.

Guarding against the threat of terrorism is essential to national security, but disease poses a far larger statistical threat, one which Washington’s budgetary priorities must also recognize. However, choosing between preventing terrorism and disease is a false dichotomy – we can and must do both.

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The potential for new therapies that can reduce that threat has never been greater, as scientists stand on the threshold of a new frontier that is redefining what is medically possible. We have made tremendous advances in genomics, cellular biology, imaging, and brain mapping. These achievements have delivered tools that make medical advances a realitytools that allow us to save and improve lives. 

 

Recent discoveries in the lab have allowed us to unravel how cancer cells foil the immune system. As a result, new immuno-therapies now harness the patient’s own body to stop cancer cells from shutting off the immune system’s response to foreign invaders. Similar approaches are also treating inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and psoriasis, all advancements that have resulted from NIH-supported research. 

This time of historic opportunity demands that scientists and the public be bold in calling for federal support, not only for scientific and public health reasons, but also for economic ones. More effective medicines that can eradicate and reduce the severity of disease will lower the cost of health care.

The possibilities for savings are particularly substantial given the fact that the baby boom generation is approaching the age of maximum susceptibility to chronic disease. Additionally, by reducing the prevalence of disease and improving health, NIH-supported research improves worker productivity and cuts employee absence and disability. 

Advocates of corporate tax cuts argue that the savings will free up capital for new investments, leading to more hiring. But economic studies question that logic. In contrast, a sure bet for job creation is funding for innovative biomedical research. NIH spending fuels the biomedical employment engine, supporting 380,000 jobs across all 50 states. Income from those jobs combined with the purchase of equipment, materials, and services for research produces $65 billion in economic activity, all for less than one percent of the entire federal budget.

Furthermore, discoveries from NIH-backed research are the backbone of the biosciences industry, which directly supports more than 1.6 million jobs. The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, which I oversee, exemplifies the multiplier effect of NIH funding.

We received $318 million from the NIH last year, a level of support that made possible hundreds of research projects, including employment of scientists conducting those investigations; facilitated 218 patent filings; and created seven spin-off companies that have hired many dozens of people. The immediate payoff is economic; the future payoff is medical in the form of new drugs.

We are at a moment in science comparable to the beginning of the Renaissance, when an era of great creativity and advancement changed the world. Today, substantial, sustained growth that doubled the NIH budget over the long term would inevitably bring forth new therapies that could extend or improve the lives of millions of people. 

From 1998 to 2003, under Presidents Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBill Clinton hits Trump administration policy separating immigrant families in Father's Day tweet Trump's strategy for North Korea and beyond James Comey's higher disloyalty to America MORE and George W. Bush, federal funding for the NIH doubled. That support made it possible to sequence the human genome, a breakthrough that will be the basis for many medical discoveries to come. But once we reached that funding goal, investment in the agency stalled. Now scientists need the resources to make up for that lost ground and exploit the tools that are already in their hands.

By dramatically boosting funds for scientific research, we will have the chance to see a day when our grandchildren will question why cancer was such a scourge, wonder why many did not get to celebrate their centennial birthdays, and ask, “What was Alzheimer’s disease?” 

We have the potential to oversee a revolution in biology in our lifetimes. But without adequate federal funding to support this vision, that dream will not be realized. We will let the Renaissance of biology slip through our fingers.

Kenneth Davis is the president and CEO of Mount Sinai Health System.