Recent federal budget debates have called into question the future of National Institutes of Health funding, which plays a critical role in medicine and the economy. There is no region of the country that will feel a reduction in NIH funding more acutely than the Boston area, which is the largest recipient of dollars from the federal agency.
NIH has played a central role in funding biomedical research in the United States since the first appropriation for cancer research in 1938. Its importance was recognized by our political leadership as they increased funding from $13.6 billion in 1998 to $27.5 billion in 2003. After 2003 the funding increases did not keep pace with inflation and experienced a one-time-only increase of $10.4 billion as part of the stimulus plan, to be spent over the two-year period 2010-2011. With our extraordinary budget issues and difficult choices on spending cuts, the future of NIH funding is at risk.
There is no question that biomedical research spearheaded by NIH has had a dramatic impact in extending and improving lives across the country. Death rates for heart disease and stroke are 60-70 percent lower than in the World War II period. Just in the past 15 years, cancer death rates have dropped 11 percent among women and 19 percent among men due to the better screening and more effective treatment. A baby born in 2010 can expect to live to 79, compared with 49 for someone who was born in 1900.
What is most important and exciting is that the pace of the innovation may well be accelerating with the groundbreaking research by the nation’s leading research centers, many of which are located in the Boston-Cambridge area.
I’ve seen first-hand at the Damon Runyon Cancer Research foundation the impact that funding can have. We invest in cancer research on a much smaller scale than the NIH, but we’ve seen tremendous results in advancing the research that is critical to improving and extending lives. Damon Runyon has funded nearly 200 researchers at 15 Boston area institutions since 2000, focusingd on supporting and encouraging the best and brightest young scientists early in their careers.
Massachusetts receives more than double the NIH funding of any other state.
The Boston area has witnessed the important impact research has had in our community. We are home to the top five NIH-funded research hospitals in the United States. On a per-capita basis, Massachusetts receives more than double the NIH funding of any other state. As a result, biotech jobs in the Commonwealth have increased over 50 percent since 2001, while broader employment has fallen 2.5 percent over the same period. Total biotech payrolls are approaching $5 billion. Further, almost a quarter of all US venture capital biotech funding in 2010 was invested in Massachusetts. Biotech and its related industries are truly vital to the Massachusetts economy.
We are at a critical juncture in biomedical research. Large pharmaceutical companies have reduced research expenditures due to mergers and budgeting constraints. Some research is being moved overseas. We need to sustain the funding of the best and brightest researchers to continue to accelerate the amazing progress that has been made. Secure and stable funding is also important to attracting new young minds into biomedical research.
We have enormous scientific talent in the United States. Contrary to a widely-held view, our issue is not that we don’t graduate enough exceptional scientists, but rather that the funding is uncertain.
NIH has played a critical role in providing the funding that has attracted strong researchers whose important research has lead to huge breakthroughs. The role of NIH has never been more important in ensuring the accelerating pace of discovery, and innovation continues in biomedical research. Recent therapies including the treatment of lung cancer and melanoma have shown major promise and have generated renewed optimism that we truly are at a crossroads in our efforts to extend and improve lives.
It is imperative that the NIH budget be sustained. It is important for our economy, important for keeping our scientists in their research laboratories, and important for the health of us all.
In a previous version of this story, Alan Leventhal was not credited.