Funding for Basic Biomedical Research Must Be Preserved

When Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.) — President Donald Trump’s nominee to be the director of the powerful Office of Management and Budget  — asked on Facebook, “Do we need government-funded research at all?” some in the science establishment gasped. But the right response should be to answer his question. Why are investments in basic biomedical research necessary to secure our future? That question was posed — and answered — by Vannevar Bush in “Science, The Endless Frontier, a July 1945 report to President Harry Truman.  Bush maintained that basic research was “the pacemaker of technological progress.”

“New products and new processes do not appear full-grown” Bush wrote. “They are founded on new principles and new conceptions, which in turn are painstakingly developed by research in the purest realms of science!”  Bush’s prescient words remain as true today as they were 70 years ago.

Making America great requires more high-skill and high-wage jobs, coupled with enhanced economic and physical security. In a world of dramatic technological advantages and global integration resulting from advances in computing power, telecommunication connectivity and transportation, the United States has substantial comparative advantages in our intellectual assets — provided that we recognize the source of those creations. The best way to protect our borders is to expand our horizons based on inventions derived from discoveries made in basic scientific research. Our enviable standing of living and our economic standing in the world derive in good measure from the benefits that flowed from federal funding of basic research. Industry alone cannot, and will not, conduct much of this research. But investments made by our Government in fundamental scientific inquiry make a huge down payment for our future well-being.

The good news for supporters of science is that there is broad and deep bipartisan support for federal biomedical research. Recent enactment into public law of 21st Century Cures Act gives an important boost to increased spending for the National Institutes of Health. Support for biomedical research from HHS secretary nominee Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) is an excellent example of someone with a medical pedigree who knows about the merits of biomedical research. 

Three facts that support federal spending on life sciences:

  1. For every dollar of NIH spending, there is an economic multiplier effect of $2.21. This draws a short-term, linear connection between research and jobs.
  1. In recent years, the United States alone has been responsible for about half of all critical global health advances. Among other benefits, these advances help to stabilize the world and to protect the homeland by checking the spread of diseases that respect no borders, walled or otherwise.
  1. In a recent poll, 78 percent of Americans supported continued assistance for federal research to enhance our international competitiveness and economic growth.

In the past 15 years or so the United States scientists have won 47 Nobel Prizes in relevant fields, of whom approximately 40 percent are immigrants (continuing a tradition of scientific inclusion reaching back to the Manhattan project). These prizes are more than nice looking medals, but serve as a barometer of scientific excellence. The discoveries of these Nobelists serve as the foundation for future inventions and the jobs such breakthroughs provide.

The primacy of our own NIH in biomedical research is threatened.  Though the United States still leads the world in biological research, it is losing its edge, according to an analysis in the American Medical Association’s flagship journal, JAMA. The United States funded 57 percent of biomedical research a decade ago, but that number has dropped to 44 percent. Is that what we want in the century of biology?

For the United States to thrive, we need to support basic research by increasing investments in federally sponsored research and development. Equally, we must be engaged in the world and see the risks of inaction if we act like an isolationist fortress. Hybrid vigor is an essential element to success in science.

Unlike applied research in engineering or medicine that is driven by problems with clear paths to solutions, basic science is not meant to create solutions per se, but rather, to understand the world. Most scientists are not thinking in terms of applied problems when doing science, but in terms of what is interesting or mysterious, or what can we learn. These basic research insights unexpectedly lead to applied breakthroughs, just as a mathematician’s discovery about electromagnetism in the Soviet Union became the foundation of the first stealth fighter jet in the United States during the Cold War and the discovery of the structure of the DNA molecule by two young scientists led to the eventual creation of the biotechnology industry.

When the Trump administration takes office, it can leverage (a term well known in real estate and finance) our past investments in biomedical research to accelerate the pace of health care advances, create millions of new jobs, and enhance our preeminent position in the life sciences world. The only condition is that political leaders must recognize that they need to let science be science and not micromanage or hamstring the pace and direction of it.

An earlier version of this op-ed misstated Mulvaney’s status as a member of Congress.


David Beier and Merv Turner formerly were senior executives with Amgen and Merck, respectively, and are now with Bay City Capital. Beier is also a fellow at the Schaeffer Center for Health Policy and Economics at the University of Southern California.

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