San Diego Union Tribune: Opinion: Funding problems stifling our scientific future

By David Gollaher, op-ed to the San Diego Union-Tribune
October 17, 2013

Among the harms resulting from sequestration and the recent government shutdown, it’s hard to imagine anything worse than the damage to our National Institutes of Health (NIH). For generations, this federal agency has been the world leader in funding medical research.

The results have been remarkable on two fronts. First, science supported by the NIH has led to a cascade of breakthrough treatments for diseases ranging from HIV/AIDS to cancer and heart disease. At the same time, these discoveries have fueled the nation’s biomedical industry, a major source of high-level employment — nearly 270,000 jobs in California alone — and America’s global competitiveness.

But unless Congress gets its act together, the NIH stands to lose $1.6 billion this year and billions more in the future. What’s ironic is that federal support for medical research is one of the few issues on which Republicans and Democrats generally agree. Private-sector research, after all, focuses mainly on commercial applications.

In contrast, the core mission of the NIH is to improve human health by funding basic research into the secrets of nature. Its present budget is about $31 billion, of which some 80 percent flows to 300,000 scientists around the country, working in 2,500 universities and private research institutes. The money is awarded through a system of competitive, peer-reviewed grants. Outside experts in different fields of science and medicine review and rank the quality of each application. Before the shutdown, NIH officials estimated that sequestration alone will force an annual reduction of 700 competitive grants. And our state will suffer disproportionally. Year after year, California has led the nation in the number of NIH grants awarded and the total dollars of funding. In 2012, California research institutions and universities received 7,232 total grants amounting to more than $3.4 billion.

Less research means fewer discoveries and, in the long term, fewer new medicines, diagnostics and medical technologies for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, the costs of which are expected to reach $1.2 trillion by 2050. Faced with declining prospects of winning grants, younger scientists studying at California’s top universities and others across the United States may either choose different fields or decide to pursue their careers in countries like China, Israel or Singapore that are rapidly increasing research investments. While the United States rests on its laurels, these countries clearly understand that funding basic research is essential for building a larger biomedical ecosystem and that world-class science is the foundation for a globally competitive industry.

The NIH wasn’t originally designed as an instrument of economic development. Yet, during the past generation it has proved a powerful engine for growth. In the early 1970s, for example, the NIH funded the discovery of recombinant DNA, which spawned the U.S.-dominant biotechnology industry, and in 2003 completed the Human Genome Project, which opened the frontier of personalized medicine.

With an unequaled life sciences infrastructure — think Salk, Scripps, Sanford-Burnham and UC San Diego locally — the United States is in a perfect position to capitalize on the substantial investments the nation has made in the past. In the San Diego area alone, UC San Diego, Scripps, Salk and Sanford-Burnham in 2012 received a combined total of nearly 1,600 NIH grants, adding up to some $778 million in research funding. NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins likes to point out that there’s never been so promising a time to attack our worst diseases at their molecular and genetic roots. However, with the sequester and recent government shutdown, we face the prospect of squandering opportunities that may take generations to recover

In a saner time, our political leaders would recognize the difference between discretionary spending and essential investment. They’d also recognize that a key solution to soaring health care costs, the source of so much anxiety about entitlement expenditures, lies in understanding the deeper biology of Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s, many forms of cancer, and so on. The implications for the long-term effects of cutting NIH funding are disturbing. The immediate pain will be felt by researchers whose grants aren’t funded. A far greater anguish will be felt by future generations of patients who will not have access to new and innovative medicines and therapies.

David L. Gollaher, Ph.D., is president and CEO of California Healthcare Institute, which is headquartered in La Jolla and represents more than 275 leading biotechnology, medical device, diagnostics, and pharmaceutical companies, and public and private academic biomedical research organizations.

Read more at the San Diego Union Tribune.