Congressional Myopia: Without Support for Research, There Will Be No Medical Breakthroughs

04/23/2015 05:10 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

Many in the scientific community lament that the purchasing power of the National Institutes for Health has decreased 25 percent over the past decade. Despite the economic (not to mention lifesaving) benefits of medical research, our Congressional leadership has not stepped up to ensure the future: "We wish we could, but we simply cannot make this a priority." It's a startling example of political myopia -- valuing short term savings over long-term commitment and an investment in greatness.

Consider the economic and social impact of medical breakthroughs: In 1976, a 34-year-old Harvard medical school graduate, Alfred Sommer, conducted research in Indonesia and discovered that deficiencies in vitamin A could make children blind and fatally susceptible to infectious diseases such as measles and diarrhea.

Sommer devised a simple treatment approach--provide vitamin A pills to children--and achieved staggering results. Two cents' worth of vitamin A administered twice a year reduced childhood mortality in these developing countries by a third. UNICEF estimates that since its launch in the 1990s, the vitamin A supplement campaign has saved 10 million children from blindness and death.

The World Bank has emphasized how cost effective this medical intervention is--estimating that every dollar invested in supplementation yields more than $100 in economic return.

Sommer's life-saving discovery was produced at a time (in the 1980s-1990s) when support for biomedical research and its researchers was robust. In the 1980s, a dedicated young scientist could conduct global research and then find the training and support to turn passion and curiosity into a viable career path. Unlike today when researchers struggle to identify consistent research funding, this was a time of promise and opportunity and the pay-offs to humankind were big.

This week, Dr. Sommer--a Lasker Laureate and Dean emeritus and faculty member at Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health--will speak to the American Physician Scientists Association in Chicago to share the lessons he has garnered over the course of his illustrious career. APSA is a student-led organization of U.S. MD-PhD candidates--a group with the training and commitment needed to make future medical breakthroughs.

Would an ambitious young researcher like Al Sommer have succeeded in leading a research team today? NPR reports that of the 40,000 postdoctoral fellows working in science labs, only 15 percent will secure tenure-track professorships. And too often they don't receive the experiential training or encouragement they need to find jobs in industry, science education, policy or administration.

Would an Al Sommer coming up through the ranks today have received the funding he needed to launch his career? Today, scientists face the worst funding environment in half a century. Scientists under age 36 receive half as many grants as those over age 65. In 1980, most biomedical researchers received their first major grants from the NIH at age 38. By 2013, that average had risen to age 45.

As Francis Collins, director of the NIH has said about inadequate funding, "I worry desperately this means we will lose a generation of young scientists." Of young researchers who watch their senior research mentors struggle for funding, he says "they wonder, 'Do we really want to sign up for that?' Many of them, regrettably, are making the decision to walk away."

If funding for biomedical research continues to decline -- if the U.S. abdicates its global leadership role -- future researchers and their medical advances will be lost--and the nation will suffer from its leadership's myopia. And since each generation trains the next, losing a generation of scientists will have a debilitating long-term impact. Government, private enterprise and philanthropic investment in biomedical research is critical if we hope to benefit from the paradigm-shifting breakthroughs that could be made by today's young researchers.