By DENNIS F. MANGAN
Sometimes our federal government gets it right.
Since the mid-1800s, the National Institutes of Health has supported biomedical research that improves the health of our nation. NIH receives an appropriation from Congress to fund research projects conducted largely in universities, hospitals, clinics and research institutes throughout the country. More than $1 billion comes to Northern California in the form of NIH grants and contracts to pay for research on an array of diseases and conditions.
The Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, Stanford University, UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, as well as other local universities, biotech businesses, nonprofit agencies, clinics and Veterans Administration medical centers depend heavily on NIH to fund their biomedical research activities. These funds generate thousands of jobs for faculty, technical and administrative staff; provide educational opportunities for next generation scientists; advance the entire field of health care; and, in general, help the local economies.
Competition for NIH funds is intense. More than 80,000 new applications are submitted each year asking NIH for research money. Right now, only about one out of six applications receives funding — the other five must try again, start over or give up. The awards are distributed over the entire spectrum of diseases and conditions. No single disease gets enough new awards to learn all we need to know.
There is much more work left to be done on all human diseases, including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, AIDS and brain disorders. More than 7,000 “rare” diseases receive little or no funding because of inadequate NIH funds. This is disheartening to patients who are suffering, as well as to the scientists who are ready, willing and trained to do the research.
Without NIH money, research centers do not buy equipment and supplies needed to do research, technical assistants lose their jobs, newly trained scientists never get a chance to start their careers, and highly skilled scientists leave the United States to conduct their research in laboratories in other countries. Pharmaceutical and biotech companies rely on the information reported from NIH-supported basic science projects to develop new medical drugs, devices and therapeutics. Inadequate NIH funding leaves us defenseless against new biological weapons (remember the anthrax attacks?) and emerging diseases (H5N1 flu.)
Nearly everyone agrees that our health is important and that biomedical research is an excellent use of taxpayers’ dollars. However, some see science as a luxury that can be cut from the federal budget. In response to pressure from vocal anti-science groups and some shortsighted congressional representatives, the NIH budget has been flat-lined for the past several years.
Our challenge is to make sure that everyone in Washington understands the importance of NIH-funded research to us in Northern California. House and Senate representatives and the White House must be thanked for supporting NIH in the past and encouraged to champion a generous increase for NIH in the future, despite political and economic pressures. To be effective advocates for biomedical research, we must learn more about the NIH, its leadership and activities (www.nih.gov).
Finally, if you haven’t already done so, take a tour of the Buck Institute and other biomedical research centers in Northern California and discover the exciting world-class research being done in our own backyard. The health of our local economy as well as the health of our nation depends on a well-funded NIH.
Dennis F. Mangan, is a retired NIH program director, former associate dean for research at the University of Southern California and is now a science communication advisor living in Santa Rosa. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.