Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An open letter to Congress: Why we must generously fund NIH

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been a leader in and catalyst of scientific discovery for many years, through its support of a broad spectrum of basic and clinical research across many disease areas. NIH has funded many projects that initially were of interest primarily from a basic science perspective, some that were considered risky, and some that seemed only remotely related to overall public health when first considered. 

This funding strategy has fostered innovation, reduced disease, increased quality and length of life, and stimulated our economy. Statistics show that the lifespan of Americans has increased by almost one-third since the NIH was formally established in 1930. Scientific studies show that NIH research is directly responsible for that increase.

Other studies show that NIH research is an economic engine. Consider the Human Genome Project. This multi-year program was designed to map human genetics and advance research into the genetic underpinnings of human diseases, to develop new treatments for people with genetic disorders. NIH’s $8 billion investment (about 75% of total federal funding for the project) produced an economic impact between 1988 and 2010 of $796 billion, according to a Batelle report entitled “Economic Impact of the Human Genome Project”. Another study entitled “An Economic Engine” sponsored by United for Medical Research reported that in 2008, NIH activities resulted in over $84 billion of wages in the medical innovation sector and in 2010, NIH investment resulted in over $68 billion of new economic activity. By many accounts, American taxpayers’ investment in NIH research more than pays for itself.

However, NIH’s ability to catalyze innovation and discovery is in danger today of being seriously disrupted by the budgetary challenges we currently face. With the brief exception of the Recovery Act (ARRA) funding period, the NIH budget has been maintained at or below the level of inflation since 2004, effectively reducing funding. The Senate-proposed appropriation actually reduces the NIH budget for the first time. If that budget is adopted and/or if other NIH budget cuts are instituted, NIH will be forced to award fewer grants and fewer dollars per grant. The result will be that many talented and productive scientists and their ideas will be squeezed out of the system, and possibly lost forever.

The evidence suggests that budgetary pressures negatively influence scientific creativity. For example, a study by MIT economists led by Pierre Azoulay entitled “Incentives and Creativity: Evidence from the Academic Life Sciences” compared accomplishments of researchers funded by NIH and by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). HHMI offers its grant recipients greater freedom to explore and longer funding periods than NIH. The Azoulay study showed that HHMI researchers tended to produce more innovative ideas that resulted in higher impact research, even after matching the NIH and HHMI researcher samples on career success. Thus, inducing greater budgetary pressures on NIH is likely to stifle scientific creativity and the public health and economic benefits NIH research offers.

One could conceptualize NIH as a large index mutual fund designed to invest broadly so it captures many winners, since when it comes to scientific research, just like when it comes to financial investing, it is very hard if not impossible to predict winners at the outset.

None other than billionaire conservative businessman Mr. David Koch has been quoted as using this type of investment strategy to support cancer research (Cancer Research Before Activism, New York Times, March 4, 2011). Mr. Koch, a prostate cancer survivor, explained his reasons for distributing $200 million worth of pledges and donations to several cancer research centers, including a $100 million donation to fund the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He noted that he had been supporting cancer research widely based on his prior success picking a Kentucky Derby winner: “I bought a ticket on every horse in the race”.

There are many programs American taxpayers support today and many programs are struggling in these lean economic times. Nonetheless, I urge Congress to generously support NIH and to consider increasing NIH funding, which virtually is certain over time to provide a handsome return to American taxpayers both in terms of improved public health and economic stimulus.

I also urge CPDD members and other interested persons to lobby your representatives in Congress to support NIH research funding over the coming weeks as budget priorities are discussed. You can do this by identifying your representatives here and sharing the URL of this article.  

CPDDBLOG welcomes CPDD member's thoughts on this issue.  

Disclosure: the author is a long-term recipient of NIH funding.

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