Don’t forget the future: Medical research funding at a crossroads

Detroit Free Press guest column, Nov. 2, 2014

microscope.fwThe contributions of medical research to understanding health and treating disease are a modern miracle.

If our nation hadn’t spent the last decade cutting funding for medical research, might we have an Ebola vaccine by now? Or made breakthroughs in the treatment of cancer, developed new approaches to treating heart disease, or made progress against antibiotic-resistant infections?

The possibilities are endless. Unfortunately, we will never know what might have been possible.

But we do know that cuts to the budget of the National Institutes of Health, which funds most medical research in the United States, have had a deleterious effect on our ability to create new knowledge and develop new therapies. These funds fuel discoveries by medical researchers in Michigan and every other state.

We also know we risk losing the talents of a generation of young medical scientists, who face daunting job prospects due to uncertain funding.

Soon after the coming election, critical decisions in Washington will make the difference between restricting, and stimulating, the innovation of our nation’s medical researchers.

JOW funding pull quote blogUnless our elected officials come together to stabilize the funding streams, and make them more predictable over multiple years, we will further impair our medical research enterprise and further imperil the development of new approaches to improve human health.

Scientists at my own institution, and at universities and institutes across Michigan, compete for dollars to perform the most promising experiments and clinical trials in their specific field. That competition has grown more intense as federal support has stagnated and its purchasing power shrunk.

Right now, more than half a billion dollars in NIH funding flows into Michigan every year, more than half of it to scientists at the medical school I oversee.

These dollars, from our nation’s primary source of medical research funding the NIH, support discovery on myriad diseases. They also support good-paying jobs and the education of young people interested in careers in science, technology and medicine.

In fact, federal research funding supports more than, 50,000 jobs in Michigan alone. The fruits of that research can be commercialized by industry — including startup companies like the dozens that have come out of U-M.

The NIH has a current budget of $30 billion, 80 percent of which funds competitive research grants at institutions like mine. That sounds healthy.

Medical School dean James O. Woolliscroft, M.D.

Medical School dean James O. Woolliscroft, M.D.

But when adjusted for inflation, NIH actually receives 25 percent less in funding than it did just a decade ago.

This means thousands of promising research proposals that aim to cure diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer’s and diabetes are rejected each year.

Ironically, less than one percent of the federal budget goes toward medical research, even though it may be the single most important investment in the future health of our nation and its people. Fewer research dollars also mean less investment in local economies across our state, as every dollar of NIH funding creates between $1.80 and $3.20 of new economic activity.

Simply put, our nation and our lawmakers are at a crossroads when it comes to investing in our health, our children’s health, and the wellbeing of future generations. Therefore, it is imperative that our lawmakers provide stable and predictable budget growth for NIH’s future.

Fortunately, there is hope coming out of Washington for NIH. Michigan’s own Fred Upton (R-Kalamazoo), Chairman of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee, has reached across the aisle to partner with Congresswoman Diana DeGette (D-CO) to launch the 21st Century Cures Initiative.

This ambitious initiative will put forth bipartisan legislation in early 2015, with a goal of accelerating the pace of cures, saving more lives and keeping the United States at the forefront of medical innovation.

Only in putting forth bold legislation that addresses these investment shortfalls will we be able to encourage our brightest young researchers to continue on a path towards discovering a healthier future.

In doing so, we may also finally put an end to some of the horrific diseases that have touched all of our lives.

Take the next step:

U-M Medical School logoSince graduating its first class of six students in 1851, the U-M Medical School has been a leader in preparing the physicians and scientists of the future, conducting pathbreaking research and working with the U-M Hospitals & Health Centers to deliver outstanding care of all kinds. With top-tier national and international rankings for education & research funding, more than 3,000 faculty and nearly 1,900 students and advanced trainees, the school is truly one of the nation’s leaders and best.