THE BLOG

Cutting Biomedical Research $$ Shortens Americans' Lifespans

09/11/2013 03:18 pm ET | Updated Nov 11, 2013

You can't have medicine without science.

Congress should remember that simple truth when the House and Senate come back in September to hammer out a long-term spending agreement.

For every five years of high-quality, cutting-edge, fully-funded medical research, Americans' average life expectancies have increased by one year. We heard Dr. Barry Coller, the physician-in-chief at Rockefeller University, make this point in an inspiring and informative presidential lecture at Baylor College of Medicine in May.

As Dr. Coller explained, science drives the mission of the academic institutions that educate America's medical professionals. Without scientific progress, there would be much less to educate medical students about -- no new advances in how to diagnose patients, how to treat them, or how to help them prevent avoidable ailments.

This matters because, to put it bluntly, there would be no medicine if there were no science. For the past century, the length and quality of Americans' lives has increased not only because of improved access to medical care but also because of the science that is informing the diagnosis, treatment and preventive measures for a host of illnesses and conditions.

Under the automatic, across-the-board cuts imposed by the "sequester," funding for each of the National Institutes for Health (NIH) will be reduced by 5.1 percent for a total of about $1.7 billion.

Sure, that seems like a rounding error in the $3.8 trillion federal budget. But, when Congress cuts funding for the NIH -- the nation's leading supporter of biomedical research -- they aren't just trimming a line in the federal budget. They're cutting Americans' lifespans. They're shortchanging the preparation of tomorrow's physicians. And they're dulling America's qualitative edge in the biomedical research that is central to medical and scientific progress.

That's because the recent budget cuts are threatening the laboratories of the nation's academic health centers, slowing progress towards treatment and cures for devastating disorders such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's. In fact, biomedical research stands to be cut even more severely in the future, just as it has been virtually frozen in recent years.

Access to health care and advances in health care are two sides of the same coin, and we must not shortchange one side while funding the other side.

Over the past decade, NIH's purchasing power has declined by more than 20 percent. Even before sequestration, on average, only 18 percent of grant applications to the NIH received funding. This neglect dismayed and disheartened many young scientists, with many leaving academia and the laboratory.

Meanwhile, other advanced countries are redoubling their research. Between 2006 and 2007, annual growth in science research and development spending in China was greater than 8 percent of the gross domestic product annually; in Brazil, 3 percent; and, in Russia and India, just below 2 percent. Trailing the pack, the United States increased its investment in scientific research by less than 2 percent.

For American biomedical researchers -- and the people who are counting on cures -- a promise has been broken. In the late 1960s and 1970s, as biomedical research accelerated, the funding responsibilities were divided. The NIH and the federal government provide funding for research. Academic health institutions, including schools of medicine and graduate schools of biomedical science, provide laboratories to train researchers.

Academic health centers have kept their promise. Of the 9,000 newly minted Ph.D.'s in the biomedical sciences in the United States in 2009, 43 percent are employed in academic research or teaching, 18 percent in industrial research, 6 percent in government research and 18 percent in other science-related jobs. Only 13 percent are employed outside science, and 2 percent are unemployed.

Biomedical researchers stand at the cusp of understanding many fundamental processes of cells and how their dysfunction can lead to disease. Don't shortchange the science that can lengthen lifespans.

Paul E. Klotman, M.D. is president and CEO of Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Adam Kuspa, Ph. D. is the senior vice president for research at Baylor College of Medicine.