You may have wondered where scientists get the funds needed to conduct the biomedical research in university laboratories. Biomedical science ranges from fundamental discoveries on molecules, cells and tissues to research that results in new therapies, vaccines, drugs or new understandings of disease. Without advances in basic research, there would be little to build on to advance clinical research, and health advances would slow or stop. Today, about half the cost of all biomedical research is paid by the federal government — mostly from the National Institutes for Health. While all types of research are supported, the federal government is responsible for supporting most of the basic research in the U.S.
A recent report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology shows the value of national support of biomedical research. After World War II, people recognized that basic research provided a launching point for economic development and that having a healthy population brought many benefits to the country. This remains the case today.
Fundamental discoveries provide a starting point for translational and eventually clinical research. This early work has a long journey to a commercial product or clinical use, and it is risky and expensive for businesses, which must justify progress toward a commercial goal. For those reasons, private businesses perform studies that are product-focused and closer to human use. The government funds mostly basic research, and businesses build on the results.
This unspoken partnership between the public and private sectors pays off big time for citizens. Federally sponsored research has decreased the infant mortality rate by over 75 percent, and reduced HIV infection occurring during child birth by more than 90 percent. There have also been major declines in deaths from heart disease, cancer and strokes because of federally funded research. An estimated 100 million infections and 2.5 million deaths each year have been prevented with vaccines. Current work on vaccines is focused on preventing deaths from the Ebola and Zika viruses that have made their way to our shores and represent real threats to public health. Federally sponsored research has also led to new drugs to treat disease; most of these efforts along the path from fundamental to clinical research have benefited from federal support.
That is a remarkable record of accomplishments. This all pays off in a longer lifespan for Americans, which now averages 79 years.
Research also provides significant economic benefits. NIH-funded research is cited in almost a third of private sector biological patent applications. Federal funding has led to the formation of hundreds of biomedical and biotech companies in the U.S. Consider the new therapies and drugs that have come from the sequencing of the human genome sponsored by the NIH. The current estimate is that innovations coming from the human genome project have generated over $1 trillion in economic activity and 4.3 million job years. The NIH is currently focused on understanding the brain, and we can imagine the economic and health benefits we will see in the coming years. Who says science doesn’t pay?