Dr. Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), testified last week before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, HHS, Education and Related Agencies. His request? Ensure that the United States remains the world’s pioneer in biomedical research and discovery. 

The NIH is the single largest funder of biomedical research in the world. NIH funding has been responsible for some of the greatest breakthroughs in bioscience, medicine, and public health. It is, in part, responsible for the 30-year increase in life expectancy Americans have enjoyed over the past century. In addition, the NIH is among the greatest exports the American people provide to the rest of the world—the discoveries its funding have enabled have improved and extended the lives of countless millions abroad.


But the global impact of the NIH doesn’t stop there. It has also served as an international scientific signpost of sorts, signaling to top biomedical minds around the world that the United States is the best place on the globe to study and pursue a career in the sciences.

In fact, it is an important reason why many of us are here. Alongside our belief in the American project, the opportunity to do leading-edge science in service of human health is an important reason why we call the United States home. Each of us is a scientist and a recipient of The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans—a graduate fellowship for immigrants and their children that rewards excellence and the potential to make important contributions to the United States.

We chose to make ours through biomedical science.

But that is becoming more difficult. Funding for the NIH has faltered over the past 15 years. Particularly devastating were recent austerity measures, including the budget sequestration in 2013, which forced a cut of 5 percent in the NIH budget for that year, leading many productive labs to shut their doors. Not only has the NIH budget stagnated, but inflation and the growing costs of doing science have taken their toll. Adjusting for these, NIH funding has decreased by 11.4 percent since 2003.

Hit hardest by this downturn are young scientists, like us, who are just starting our careers. Thirty years ago, the proportion of NIH-funded scientists under the age of 36 with an R01, the NIH’s marquis grant, was 18 percent. That compares to just 3 percent today. Worse, the proportion of highly-trained scientists competing for NIH grants has nearly doubled in the last 20 years.

While competition is a key driving force for quality, stagnating funding levels have also left important scientific projects without support. This has driven many potential leaders in science away from the field entirely. In the current environment, even senior scientists have struggled to keep once thriving labs open, signaling to their trainees that perhaps other career paths are more tenable.

This stagnation is threatening America’s dominance in biomedical science and our nation’s scientific contributions to the world. This is reflected in the choices of foreign nationals who have pursued PhDs in the sciences and engineering in the United States. The choice to stay and pursue careers in America has largely stagnated since 2005, and in some cases, declined.

Director Collins has requested a modest increase in NIH funding of $1 billion, a mere 3.3 percent above enacted 2015 levels. While there are a number of important national priorities with which science funding competes, science is a unique investment in the future of our country. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that the financial rate of return on investments in biomedical research was nearly 30 percent. More importantly, NBER estimates suggest that the ‘social’ return on research investments between 1970 and 2000 was nearly $95 trillion—in the form of longer lives and healthier livelihoods.

The logic of disinvesting in science is similar to that of choosing not to change your oil. It may save you a couple bucks, and you will probably be fine in the short-term—that is until your engine burns out. Discovery is the engine of American progress. But without regular oil and maintenance, our engine is slowly grinding to a halt.

We join Director Collins and the thousands of scientists whose research is driving the future of science, medicine, and public health in asking our leadership to invest in the future of American science. After all, we already have.

El-Sayed, a physician and epidemiologist, and assistant professor of Epidemiology at Columbia University, is a Soros fellow. 15 other Soros fellows singed the op-ed.