Since President Joe Biden submitted his first budget request to Congress, there has been much discussion of a bold, new policy proposal embedded in his $51 billion funding request for the National Institutes of Health: creation of an Advanced Research Project Agency for Health (ARPA-H), which promises to “drive transformational innovation in health research and accelerate application and implementation of health breakthroughs.”
There is no single action that will do more to advance the health and wealth of our nation than investing robustly in fundamental research at NIH and creating ARPA-H to accelerate translational research that will lead to new cures and therapies. ARPA-H will tackle big scientific challenges and encourage investigators to undertake high risk-high reward transformative research. Scientists, policymakers and advocates can agree that there are critical and promising areas of research, engineering and technology that would clearly benefit from a concentrated and highly focused program that is well-funded by the federal government and could not be otherwise funded through NIH grants.
Transformative cures are within our grasp — triumphs of human ingenuity that will save millions of lives and conquer diseases that have vexed us for centuries. The United States has the unique capability to accomplish anything, from the D-Day invasion to the Manhattan Project, to putting a man on the moon, and to finding cures for devastating diseases.
Accelerated vaccines and treatments for emerging diseases are just one such area of biomedical innovation and pandemics are not the only great threat to humanity. Cancer will kill over 600,000 people in the United States this year, and someone in the country develops Alzheimer’s Disease every 66 seconds. The next great threat to our nation and economy looms large as an aging population confronts the health and financial costs associated with chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
ARPA-H has the potential to be the latest example of American ingenuity; it will leverage ground-breaking research funded by NIH to drive innovations to market. It is imperative then that ARPA-H funding be in addition to, and not at the expense of, a robust increase to the NIH base budget.
NIH is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world, and its research drives the economy, reins in health care costs and spares millions across the globe from the ravages of disease. While the cost is billions, the return is in the trillions — and it is priceless to patients and their families. For example, the $3.8 billion NIH-funded human genome project has generated over $1 trillion to our economy and recent developments of cancer immunotherapy and CRISPR gene editing technologies will generate similar returns.
As the White House develops its plans for ARPA-H, the administration should work with Congress and the scientific community on how best structure this new program to achieve maximum results. There is no shortage of opinions on how ARPA-H should be funded and structured. This healthy debate will improve the ultimate design and effectiveness of ARPA-H, but you can’t please everyone, and it won’t be perfect.
I hope we can agree that ARPA-H is needed urgently to fight disease so our nation can respond as we do to any great threat in a time of crisis. We need to empower and deploy our greatest national asset — our brilliant scientists and engineers — to find solutions to the most intractable diseases and conditions through NIH and ARPA-H. And — as the president said in his address to Congress— “end cancer as we know it. It is within our power. It’s within our power to do it.”
Biden is a champion of science who understands the enormous power of biomedical research to ease human suffering. Congress also has demonstrated the compassionate resolve to conquer illness and has elevated NIH investment to a bipartisan national priority. America’s leaders have the vision and determination to proactively address the grand challenges facing our nation, including vanquishing disease.
At the greatest time in history for scientific advancement, we must seize this unprecedented and historic opportunity to improve the human condition.
There are too many patients to be patient.
Jed Manocherian is the founder and chairman of ACT for NIH, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to advancing life-saving biomedical research by educating policymakers and the public about the importance of biomedical research undertaken by the National Institutes of Health.
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