We’re in the midst of a remarkable stream of scientific and medical advances, spurred by dramatic advances in biotechnology, computing, and miniaturization. Our knowledge of biology has led to amazing leaps in our understanding of aging, immune responses, inherited diseases, and brain function, to name but a few. And yet we're cutting science funding, year after year. As Porter writes,
“the general public, and in particular elected officials, have failed to embrace the promise of cutting-edge science as a means to improve health and the economy.”Somehow we found (or borrowed) $2 trillion dollars to spend on wars in far-off countries whose citizens don’t like us - a cost that will at least double before we’re done paying the bills. And some politicians this past week were demanding that we invest billions more in Iraq, money that we don’t have. It's touching how concerned they are for the citizens of Iraq.
Meanwhile, eight of the top 10 causes of death in the U.S. are diseases that we might cure through better research, including heart disease (#1), cancer (#2), Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and kidney disease. We already have far better treatments for these diseases than we had a few decades ago, thanks to our past investments in biomedical research.
In this column over the past few years, I’ve highlighted just a tiny sample of the remarkable advances coming out of the scientific world, such as
- a breakthrough cure for some forms of leukemia;
- a new, less invasive prenatal test for Down Syndrome and other chromosomal abnormalities;
- stem cell treatments that can repair damaged hearts;
- a promising breakthrough in Alzheimer’s treatment; and
- stem cells to treat blindness.
Curing these diseases will not only save lives - it will also save money. A nonpartisan study revealed that publicly-funded research generates returns of 25 to 40 percent a year. And former Congressman Porter explains,
“If a treatment became available in 2015 that delayed the onset of Alzheimer's disease by 5 years annual Medicare and Medicaid spending would be $42 billion less by 2020.”Without investment in research, though, these treatments will never arrive. Meanwhile, we’re spending $400 billion (13 times the entire annual NIH budget) on a new fighter plane that won’t even be ready to fly for another 5 years, after which the Pentagon says it will cost $850 billion to keep it going. We’re spending billions more on military equipment that even the Pentagon doesn’t want, such as the Global Hawk drone program, which Congress is forcing the Air Force to keep.
Obviously, the military-industrial complex has better lobbyists than we in the biomedical research world have.
We don’t invest in research just to make money, though. Make no mistake: biomedical research saves lives. We’ve effectively cured many types of childhood cancer such as retinoblastoma and Hodgkins lymphoma, but there are over 200 types of cancer, most of them still needing far more research.
We need elected leaders with the vision to re-examine our priorities and invest in the future. The U.S. scientific research enterprise remains the envy of the world, but it won’t stay that way long if we keep cutting it as we have been.
How much should we invest in biomedical research? Let me put some numbers on the table - not that we can get there overnight, but we could set these as goals and and then figure out how to get there. How about allocating 2% of our total budget - $75 billion - for all of our biomedical (NIH) and basic science (NSF) research? NIH’s budget is currently about 4 times the size of NSF; if we keep that ratio then NSF would get $15B and NIH $60B. That’s about twice what we spend now. We've done this before: Congressman Porter and his colleagues advocated a doubling of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003, and we could do it again.
Congressman Porter wants us to speak up for research. Let’s start now.