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A Word From the President: Today’s Health Challenges Call for More Investment in Research—Not Funding Cuts

AAMC Reporter: October 2014

The recent Ebola and enterovirus D68 outbreaks underscore how emerging health threats can disrupt an entire nation. They also signal that re-energizing the nation’s commitment to federally supported medical research must be a top priority. Research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the nation’s best hope for developing effective diagnostics, vaccines, and treatments for emerging health threats, and perhaps more important, for responding to the health challenges ahead for an aging nation.

With 10,000 people turning 65 every day for the next 17 years, we need a renewed commitment to medical research to help reduce the astronomical costs of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and cancer that are expected to follow. NIH-sponsored research is essential to advance our understanding of biology and to provide the fundamental knowledge that will lead to the next generation of treatments and, hopefully, cures. This includes so-called high-risk research and research on rare diseases that typically are not conducted by industry.

Now is the time to urge Congress to pass the stalled spending bill for 2015 that would completely restore the devastating NIH budget cuts made two years ago. Congress restored slightly more than half of the funding withheld during sequestration in 2013, but that does not begin to compensate for the decline of more than $6.1 billion in NIH funds since 2003 after adjusting for inflation. With approximately 85 percent of research grant applications being rejected, opportunities for creating new drugs, lifesaving treatments, and more effective approaches to therapy are being scrapped, scaled down, or delayed. The funding shortfall has left some of our best scientists spending more time writing grant proposals than conducting research. Scientists cannot make research plans for promising cures, technologies, and preventive strategies when budgets are in limbo.

Scientists at the nation’s medical schools and teaching hospitals conduct about half of all external research funded by the NIH. As a community, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to speak up about why restoring the NIH budget must be a national priority. Beyond improving the nation’s physical health, increasing funding for medical research is good for the country’s fiscal health. For many communities, academic medical centers and research universities are drivers of the local economy and contribute to long-term regional growth. The NIH-funded research at our medical schools and teaching hospitals creates skilled jobs, new products, and improved technologies that ultimately save the country millions of dollars in health care costs. In 2012, NIH research supported more than 400,000 jobs nationwide.

NIH funding also has made the United States globally competitive in biotechnology, medical device manufacturing, and pharmaceutical development. In addition, NIH trains the scientists who go on to start new companies, join established firms, and enter crucial positions in industry and government where their technical background allows for better management decisions. But China, India, and other countries now are challenging America’s dominance in medical innovation by vastly increasing their public funding for medical research. As a result, scientists trained in this country have started to look overseas for better funding and facilities, while some of our students and young graduates in the sciences have been leaving the field altogether.

The AAMC has urged Congress to pass the fiscal year 2015 Labor-HHS omnibus spending bill by the end of this calendar year. It is important that you add your voice to the call to make federal research funding a priority. Each one of you can help by asking your local congressional leaders to work in bipartisan fashion to pass this bill to restore the NIH budget to at least its presequestration level. I also encourage you to invite policymakers to your campus to interact with scientists and patients. There is no more of a direct and compelling way to show them the impact that research funding can make.

Thanks to our combined efforts, we have never had more people in Congress talking about the central role NIH and academic medicine play in safeguarding the nation’s health. My gratitude goes to the many medical schools and teaching hospitals that shared inspiring stories about their research efforts on our popular Research Means Hope Tumblr page. My thanks also go to the representatives of the 300 organizations at September’s Rally for Medical Research Hill Day in Washington, sponsored by the AAMC and several of our member institutions. And I extend my deepest appreciation to those institutions that published newspaper op-eds reinforcing the value of NIH-funded research in their communities.

While it was certainly a novel and brilliant awareness effort, an ice-bucket challenge will not make up for the billions of dollars that scientists need to make breakthroughs in treating the serious diseases and conditions that are causing premature death and disability in this country. For Americans who are counting on medical research to help themselves or a family member, hope has been on hold since the NIH budget was cut.

I don’t need to tell you how much NIH-supported research has contributed to nearly every medical treatment, diagnostic tool, and medical device developed over the last several decades. Lifesaving medical advances are at a crossroad now. It is imperative that we raise and unite our voices to communicate to legislators that federal support is vital to the ability of scientists to pioneer advances that help Americans live longer, healthier lives.

Darrell G. Kirch, MD

Darrell G. Kirch, MD