Commitment to NIH funding is important

Our investment in the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the past three decades has led to landmark accomplishments such as the mapping of the human genome and the development of life-saving drugs that target specific cancers or lower cholesterol. Deaths from heart disease and stroke are down 63 percent and 70 percent, respectively, since the 1970s, and HIV has been transformed from a rapid death sentence to a chronic, manageable disease. Thanks to NIH-funded research, millions of lives have been saved and improved, and hope for the future is provided to millions more.

Federal government funding for basic research in the biomedical sciences has had — and continues to have — a widespread impact on our nation, reaching far beyond the NIH’s campus in Bethesda, Md., and into states and communities. It has produced high-paying jobs at university hospitals and research facilities, fueled growth of the biomedical sciences industry here on U.S. soil and, most importantly, contributed to a better quality of life for patients and families.

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And the proof of this impact? NIH funding directly supports 350,000 public and private research institution jobs at more than 3,000 universities, medical schools and other research institutions nationwide. That funding serves as the foundation for growth in a life-sciences industry that has created six million high-wage domestic jobs — not only for highly credentialed researchers in corporate labs but also for technicians, business managers, salespeople and others.

I have seen the benefits of NIH investment in my own backyard, as well. The University of Iowa employs more than 16,000 people and creates $2.1 billion in economic activity annually. U-Iowa received more than $201 million in NIH awards in FY 2009, including a project leading to the creation of tools for early diagnosis of Huntington’s disease.

With Congress focusing on deficit reduction and cost-cutting it will be tempting to reduce funding to NIH. But as a nation, we cannot afford to put transformative science on hold, particularly now, when strong investments in medical research could pay extraordinary dividends to our health and economic well-being. The next threat to our economy looms large, as aging baby boomers begin to face the costs associated with diseases like Alzheimer’s, cancer, diabetes and heart disease. This is a threat that can only be addressed by continued support of NIH and medical research. 

Recently, United for Medical Research — a coalition of patient advocacy groups, research institutions and private industry — released its Profiles of Promise project, highlighting bipartisan, bicameral congressional champions who stand up for strong federal commitments to biomedical research. These leaders recognize the role NIH plays in saving lives, fueling job growth and ensuring our nation’s global competitiveness. I am honored to be included in a project that passionately advocates for medical research. Members of Congress who are profiled have demonstrated the ability to work across party lines, reflecting an understanding that the deadly diseases that strike families in every community don’t carry a political affiliation — they affect us all and must be fought head-on.

In his 2012 budget, President Obama thoughtfully requested a 3.4 percent increase for NIH research, recognizing that a robust investment in NIH today will fuel our country’s ability to innovate, create jobs, develop life-saving medical advancements and continue to be a global leader in research tomorrow.

As all of us in the 112th Congress are facing difficult funding decisions, we must remember the fruits of our past investment in life sciences and the benefits that future investment will have on our communities. Congress has a moral responsibility to give NIH researchers the resources they need to continue their extraordinary work. A commitment from Congress to sustain NIH funding will ensure that the best days of biomedical discovery in the United States are in the future, not in the past.

Harkin is chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies.

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