Wisconsin has long been home to incredibly successful research and innovation thanks to our renowned academic research institutions and some of the brightest scientific minds. From discovering how Vitamin D can best be absorbed, to unlocking the potential of stem cells, Wisconsin has pioneered remarkable breakthroughs in science that have improved health, saved lives and created jobs. These scientific breakthroughs have not only led to life-saving medical technologies but also have fostered a strong made in Wisconsin economy.
Across America, groundbreaking research supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) alone adds millions of dollars to our economy every year. In fact, NIH funding generated an estimated $58 billion in economic output nationwide in 2014. NIH funding spurs economic growth by supporting jobs in research and by generating biomedical innovations that are turned into new products. NIH-supported innovations also influence improvements in health that can bolster the economy, improve productivity, and reduce illness and disability at home and across the globe. But, budget cuts and inadequate funding for NIH in the past decade have put both medical innovation and our next generation of researchers at risk.
Today, the average age of a first-time NIH researcher is 42-years-old, up from 36 in 1980. In addition, more biomedical PhDs linger in postdoctoral training for five to eight years before achieving research independence. Unfortunately, too many of our talented young scientists are deciding to do something else, or are leaving the country to pursue their research. Simply put, scientific and medical innovation depends on our ability to foster, support and invest in these new researchers.
That is why I have worked across party lines with Senator Susan Collins of Maine and introduced the Next Generation (NextGen) Researchers Act. Our bipartisan legislation builds opportunities for new researchers, helps address the debt burden that young scientists face today, and invests in the future of research, science, and innovation. This commonsense proposal, which cleared Senate committee consideration this month, would create the "Next Generation Researchers Initiative" within the NIH Office of the Director to coordinate all current and new NIH policies aimed at promoting opportunities for new researchers and earlier research independence. The legislation also directs the NIH to consider recommendations from a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) comprehensive study and report on fostering the next generation of researchers.
Finally, we must demonstrate a commitment to our future scientists who, like so many of their peers pursuing other fields, are struggling with crushing student loan debt. Our plan would also increase the amount of loans that can be forgiven through the NIH's loan repayment programs to better account for the current debt load of new scientists. Higher education should be a path to prosperity, not suffocating debt, and this provision not only helps make higher education more affordable, but can help give new researchers a fair shot at pursuing their dreams.
In March 2015 testimony before Congress, NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins highlighted the current challenges facing young researchers saying,
This is the issue that wakes me up at night when I try to contemplate the future of where biomedical research can go in the United States. They are finding themselves in a situation that is the least supportive of that vision in 50 years. They look ahead of them and see the more senior scientists struggling to keep their labs going and suffering rejection after rejection of grants that previously would have been supportive. And they wonder, 'Do we really want to sign up for that?' And many of them, regrettably, are making the decision to walk away.
The NextGen Researchers Act strengthens our nation's commitment to our future scientific leaders and will help to empower our next generation of researchers from Maine to Wisconsin, and across our country, with the resources they need to continue to lead the world in groundbreaking biomedical research and development. I'm proud to have earned the support of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Medical College of Wisconsin, and many others, for my bipartisan work supporting Wisconsin's leadership in science, research and innovation.
At a time when America's young researchers are facing the worst funding in decades, our best and brightest minds deserve to know that our country stands with them and is committed to building a stronger future.
This post first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on February 17, 2016.