At the end of March, Congress passed a $1.3 trillion spending bill to fund federal agencies for the rest of the fiscal year and avert another government shutdown. The 2,232-page legislation included a $3 billion funding increase for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the second largest in the health agency’s history. Other research and science agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the National Science Foundation, received funding boosts as well.
The move surprised many in the biomedical community. It went against previous calls by President Trump to reduce funding for the agencies and took place in a political landscape dominated by a fiscally conservative doctrine, and where bipartisan agreement on funding increases has been scarce.
Does this mean that the U.S. is reclaiming its leadership role in biomedical innovation? It’s certainly heading that way, as long as investing in research remains a priority.
Not long ago, biomedical research was a golden child in terms of federal funding priorities. NIH funding doubled between 1998 and 2003. Since then, annual appropriations for the NIH have failed to keep pace with inflation, which has resulted in the NIH losing nearly 25 percent of its purchasing power. Because of this, researchers have had more difficulty securing grant funding. Young, first-time applicants have felt the biggest impact, which weakens our future pool of scientific leaders. Meanwhile, countries such as China and India are increasing their scientific funding by double-digit rates, according to the National Science Foundation.
Meanwhile, funding for our nation’s biomedical research agency has been caught year after year in Washington’s political gridlock. This instability is particularly disruptive for the research community, which depends heavily on the NIH to fuel the next generation of biomedical discoveries. During the last major government shutdown in 2013, scientists were locked out of their laboratories, clinical trials were delayed, and critical public health programs were put on hold.
Such grave consequences should have taught Congress to avoid withholding funding for federal agencies, especially those that directly affect our health. But we experienced two shutdowns in the first months of 2018. Until Congress passed a funding bill a few weeks ago, the NIH relied on stop-gap funding, impeding the long-term planning and investments necessary to the success of the innovation community.
However, the U.S. government might be turning over a new leaf. This is the third year that NIH has received a significant funding increase. The health agency received a $2 billion increase in fiscal years 2016 and 2017. This year’s $3 billion increase is a welcome addition and a good sign that our government wants the U.S. to continue to be the world leader in biomedical innovation.
We must remember that more than half of the world’s medicines are still developed here in the United States and millions of patients worldwide rely on our research community for life-saving treatments and cures. Federal funding is a huge part of that success. Over the past 40 years, NIH-funded research has contributed to the discovery of over 150 new FDA-approved drugs and vaccines, and it has been the driving force behind advances that were once unimaginable, such as sequencing the human genome.
More recently, breakthrough research at the University of California, Los Angeles on “universal” T-cell therapies could enable a safer and more efficient medical treatment that uses a patient’s own immune cells to fight cancer. A retinal prosthesis developed at the University of Southern California has become the first FDA-approved implanted electronic device that restores some functional vision to people who are blind. Both universities are able to pursue such meaningful research because of NIH funding.
This funding also strengthens our economy. In fiscal year 2017, the $3.7 billion that California received from the NIH supported 7,720 research projects at research institutions and biotech companies throughout the state. As innovative ideas become companies, jobs are created. NIH dollars support 380,000 careers across the U.S. and generate nearly $65 billion in annual economic activity, including more than $10 billion in California.
But most importantly, more funding for research enables the development of groundbreaking therapies and technologies—and the promise of hope for the millions of patients around the globe waiting for a treatment or cure. As the President is touting proposals to rescind funding from the spending bill he just signed into law, we urge Congress to maintain the $3 billion increase for the NIH.
Our state has shown what’s possible when great ideas gain government support. We are pleased that Congress agrees now is not the time to turn our backs on science and patients, just as we’re on the cusp of exciting new advances in treating cancer, infectious diseases, heart disease, genetic disorders, and many other conditions. It is time for sustained, predictable investment in biomedical research and continued increases in funding for our nation’s leading health agency.