THE BLOG

Medical Research Becomes a Bipartisan Issue

06/02/2015 06:35 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2016

"Healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have."

Winston Churchill's words, originally broadcast to the people of England in the midst of World War II, ring as true as ever in this country, more than 70 years later.

As federal legislators negotiate this year's budget and appropriations, they would do well to keep them in mind.

Perhaps one thing that people of all political stripes can agree on is the importance of health. When disease strikes us or our loved ones, our whole world changes. And while modern medicine has made astonishing advances thanks to medical research, patients around the globe long for better treatments for diseases ranging from cancer to autism.

The U.S. is the world's biomedical research engine. And the fuel for that engine comes from the U.S. government's National Institutes of Health (NIH), which provides the majority of funding for medical research. But while medical research benefits us all, NIH budgets have plummeted by 25 percent in real dollars over the past decade.

Yet there is hope that this trend can be reversed: several conservatives have recently stepped out in favor of dramatically increasing support to the NIH.

Republican Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, has suggested doubling the current NIH budget to $60 billion a year. Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader from Virginia, is urging fellow conservatives to heed President Obama's assertion that increases in defense spending need to be matched by more funds for domestic programs. Although both have traditionally been advocates of fiscal austerity, they are calling for a major influx of funds to the NIH, without offsetting the spending by cuts elsewhere.

As a point of contrast, the president's budget proposal for the 2016 fiscal year includes an approximate $1 billion increase in the NIH budget, to $31.3 billion. And the political mainstream has yet to voice support for even that amount.

So why are some of our conservative leaders putting themselves on the line for the NIH? It's because they understand that investing in medical research not only improves health; it also makes good economic sense.

Scientific research drives innovation and keeps the U.S. competitive in the global arena. It generates a highly trained workforce and the infrastructure to support further research and development. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the U.S. remains the world's largest spender on research and development, leads in the overall production of scientific publications, and accounts for over one-third of scientific publications cited in patents. That focus on innovation propels discoveries, creates new industries and sustains existing ones, and grows the economy.

But the U.S. needs continued government investment in its research system to maintain this position.

Citing data from the Congressional Budget Office, Cantor argues that increased support for scientific research would stimulate economic growth and have a greater long-term effect on the federal deficit than any quick-fix budgetary cuts we make now. Achieving just a 0.1 percent bump in the nation's gross domestic product and taxable income would increase government revenues by approximately $300 billion over the next ten years, he noted in an interview with The Huffington Post.

The best way to balance budgets over the long term is to spend money on the drivers of economic growth -- and one of the most robust is medical research. The Human Genome Project took more than a decade to complete, but for every dollar invested in it, the U.S. economy saw a return of $141, according to a report commissioned by Battelle, a nonprofit research and development organization.

The sequencing of the human genome has put us on the cusp of a new era: the age of precision medicine. For the first time, we have powerful tools at our disposal to help us elucidate the mysteries of disease. In the field of cancer, for example, we are building tissue banks of tumor samples, analyzing genomic variations, and enhancing our understanding of how the disease progresses and responds to various therapies in individual patients.

At Weill Cornell Medical College, we have scientists developing an artificial retina to restore sight to individuals whose vision has been damaged by degenerative disease. Some are trying to pinpoint a hormone that may inhibit insulin and lead to the development of diabetes. Others are examining how bacteria in the gut may contribute to chronic inflammatory disease.

These kinds of pioneering investigations require that both Democrats and Republicans commit themselves to ensuring that our country remains a leader in medical research and innovation. And that means a substantial boost in NIH funding.

The importance of medical research goes beyond the dollars and cents we see today. Increasing funding for the NIH is an investment in the health and prosperity of future generations. Now is the time for lawmakers to reach across the aisle and think about tomorrow.