America must get out of the woods on medical research funding

America must get out of the woods on medical research funding
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Congress is finally (hopefully) about to vote on the 2018 federal budget and in doing so, will determine funding levels for critical medical research infrastructure.   

As negotiations play-out, a broad network of stakeholders — some inside the Beltway, and others at key academic centers across the nation — ask with increased urgency: Will medical research get its due?  Will promising scientific research be supported at levels that produce breakthroughs? Or will the U.S. pass on opportunities to deliver new therapies and cures and cede leadership to other nations?

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Bipartisan voices have recognized the importance of adequately funding the National Institutes of Health (NIH), with the House and Senate proposing $1-2 billion in increased funding. We may be tempted to breathe a sigh of relief that greater support from the federal government is forthcoming.  But we shouldn’t.  Current proposals, while increases, fail to bring the NIH up to historical funding levels after correction for inflation. And equally importantly, they don’t adequately address support for the myriad other federal agencies which play key roles in supporting medical research.

According to ACT for NIH, while any funding increase is positive, it would take $2.6B a year for the next 5 years to get us back to the purchasing power in 2003 – and given the promise of imminent breakthroughs, we should be investing more.

And the need goes far beyond the NIH.  The research pipeline that delivers medicines and healthcare technologies involves an interdependent network of federal agencies.

What too many people fail to realize is that important medical advances are dependent on the studies funded by multiple agencies — from basic science supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to public health research done at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to implementation studies done at the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), and more.  Medical research is a key part of the research portfolios of agencies as diverse as Health and Human Services (HHS), FDA, EPA, Agriculture, and Energy.

How are these entities faring in the budget negotiations?  Not well. For example, the administration’s budget proposed to reduce funding for the CDC by $1.2 billion or 17 percent. And the budget proposed by Congress for NSF would leave them $135-160 million below current levels. Focusing exclusively on NIH funding and becoming dangerously complacent when the NIH budget is increased puts this research ecosystem at risk.

My colleagues at Research! America, the Science Philanthropy Alliance, The Science Coalition, and United for Medical Research, among others, as well as leaders throughout the biomedical research community have worked diligently to remind Congress about the importance of investing across the board in biomedical science: Researchers are on the precipice of producing many new therapies for deadly diseases. And research advances are important economic drivers, both directly and through the impact on improved population health. Defying this logic, serious investment across these interdependent institutions has yet to be forthcoming, even at a time when other countries such as China are dramatically increasing their commitment to research.

Robust support for medical research means mobilizing and leveraging the funding, advocacy and input of the federal government, academia, industry and philanthropy.  As the president of the Lasker Foundation, I recently organized the participation of 91 patient advocacy groups to highlight the impact of medical research (see their stories at #ResearchSavedMe) and to jointly demonstrate broad support among ordinary Americans for ongoing investment.  

Now, I urge Congress and people across our nation to join in working to ensure adequate funding for all the agencies playing critical roles in advancing medical research. We must support the NIH and the entire network of federal agencies and institutions whose mission is to ensure the public’s health. This will require an outpouring of demand from Americans everywhere, asking that we as a nation prioritize the advancement of science that can mitigate disease and suffering.  

Claire Pomeroy, M.D., M.B.A., is president of the Albert and Mary Lasker Foundation, dedicated to advancing medical research.