Senator Elizabeth Warren on Monday called for doubling federal funding of scientific and biomedical research and for more consistent financing of the National Institutes of Health, which both contribute to the state’s innovation economy.
Speaking to a forum held by the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce on Monday, the Massachusetts Democrat said increasing investment in medical research can save lives and money. Research into cheaper vaccines and drugs that delay Alzheimer’s disease can reduce the nation’s health care costs, she said.
The National Institutes of Health, which funds and conducts medical research, “drives economic growth in the United States,” Warren said.
That’s been particularly true in Massachusetts, where scientific research and the biomedical industry are pillars of the state economy. The biopharmaceutical industry employs more than 53,000 people across the state, with a combined Massachusetts payroll of more than $6 billion, according to MassBio, the state’s biotechnology trade association.
Massachusetts hospitals and research universities are among the state’s biggest employers and the nation’s biggest recipients of funding from the National Institutes of Health. Massachusetts receives about $3 billion a year in medical research funding, more per capita than any other state.
Warren said Congress should invest in research instead of providing tax breaks to oil companies, agricultural businesses, and wealthy individuals. The NIH budget doubled from $15 billion in 1998 to $30 billion in 2003, but then remained relatively flat in subsequent years.
Now sequestration, the across-the-board federal spending cuts that went into effect earlier this year, is forcing the agency to trim its spending by 5 percent. These reductions are the equivalent of “cutting your feet to save money on shoes,” Warren said.
The cuts are requiring scientists to put aside their research to chase dwindling resources, said David Weitz, a Harvard University professor of physics and applied physics. Established researchers must write more proposals and round up more support from peers to increase the likelihood their projects get federal research dollars.
For promising young scientists, funding is becoming so competitive that it may dissuade them from pursuing careers in the field of science, Weitz said.
“I have to spend a lot more time raising the money and writing proposals, talking to people,” said Weitz, who received about $1.3 million in federal funds, from NIH, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, and other agencies this year for research into new materials.
The chances of a proposal receiving NIH grant funding dropped to 14 percent this year, from about 30 percent a decade ago, said Kevin Casey, Harvard University’s acting vice president of public affairs. Casey added that federal agencies have become more cautious, passing on cutting edge research that has greater risk of failure, but also greater potential for breakthroughs that could change the world.
Scientists are hoping for more stable funding so they can focus on advancing their research, he said.
“The boom and bust type of approach is poor for planning, poor in business, poor for academics, and poor for research,” Casey said.
At the Chamber event, Warren was asked whether Republicans and Democrats in Congress could come together to support increased funding for the research after the recent government shutdown and battle over raising the nation’s debt limit, Warren said she was slightly optimistic.
Congress has to show the American public that it can make some progress, Warren said, and tackling nonpartisan issues, such as research funding may be the best approach.