Last Thursday, September 17th I had the privilege of joining over 300 organizations including patients, physicians and fellow researchers in the Rally for Medical Research on Capitol Hill. Now in the third year of gathering to raise awareness for medical research, we met with Congressional representatives and staff from 40 states to demand “robust, sustainable and predictable funding increases for the NIH (National Institutes of Health)” in the coming fiscal year and beyond.
Those of us in research are probably aware that the NIH is the largest source of funding for scientists in the biomedical fields, spanning universities and institutes in every state and throughout the world. We are probably aware that they fund highly “significant, innovative approaches” that advance our understanding and the treatment of diseases like cancer, dementia or HIV. Thanks to these collective advances we now live longer and higher quality lives than ever before. Unfortunately, every single one of us is aware of the effects a decade of stagnant NIH funding, sequestration, and the occasional government shutdown has had on the biomedical research field.
If you look at the numbers, appropriations to the NIH have remained relatively unchanged since 2004; in fact, if you correct for inflation, they’ve seen an approximate decrease of 24% in that time. Fifteen years ago, the award rate for NIH applicants was about 30%; in 2014 it was down to 17%. It’s also important to note that the numbers also reflect an increase in the total applications, which have nearly doubled in the same period of time. Good science is not being funded, and it is evident that the government funded research system is no longer sustainable.
So what is the answer?
Many of my colleagues are leaving academic research to pursue opportunities in the pharmaceutical industry and business, as well as teaching and outreach. Each of these outlets is incredibly valuable for the community at large, in addition to being rewarding careers for our scientists. Unfortunately, it’s not clear how many of these folks leave because they want to, and how many leave because they have to. Most critically, how many fundamental discoveries or life-saving cures are we missing out on because we are unable to fund many of our best and brightest scientists? Further, what will it mean for the future generation of researchers if the NIH continues to operate at virtually unchanged levels?
There is some good news in all of this. Despite dismal funding for the last several years, there is bipartisan support to increase the NIH budget for FY (fiscal year) 2016. The President has proposed a $1 billion increase to make $31.3 billion available to the NIH – the House has similarly proposed $1.1 billion and the Senate $2 billion. In July, the house passed the 21st Century Cures Initiative which asks for an additional $8.75 billion in mandatory funding for the NIH from FY 2016 to 2020. This is important because NIH funding normally falls under the discretionary category which must be agreed upon each year by Congress and the President; creating such a mandatory source of funding means that we can reliably expect an increase of $1.75 billion per year for the next few years. There is also talk of raising spending caps to discretionary funds which could allow increases to NIH funding without having to take from other federally funded agencies.
The bad news is that in order for an increase in NIH appropriations to pass, a highly divided Congress and the President will need to agree on all spending for FY 2016 by October 1st. At the very least, they will need to pass a continuing resolution, or CR, which is a short-term budget to fund the government and prevent another shutdown. This decision will hinge on issues like the future of Planned Parenthood funding, spending caps, health care and the Iran Nuclear deal. Complicating the issue further is the upcoming election year, and a handful of senators vying for the Republican nomination.
So what can I do?
The best way to get involved is to be an advocate for science, whether it be your own or otherwise. In the short term, it’s important to contact your representatives and let them know that funding biomedical research is critically important to you – as a researcher, as a person who benefits from medical research, or as a person with loved ones that benefit.
There are also many professional organizations that support science advocacy, and provide opportunities to get directly involved: as a student member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), I applied to and attended the CASE workshop in Washington, DC last April to learn the inner workings of Congress, the budget and about various opportunities for science advocacy. Following this experience, I attended the Rally for Medical Research with AAAS sponsorship. The Society for Neuroscience is another important outlet that many of us already belong to and which advocates for research and keeps members informed of critical issues.
Participating in science outreach is another valuable way to not only motivate the next generation of STEM researchers, but also to generate interest and demonstrate the value of the work that researchers do to the public at large. We are incredibly lucky to have events like Exploring Your Universe, Brain Awareness Week, and AWiSE STEM day at UCLA. Most recently, a fantastic resource for outreach opportunities was developed by UCLA students called SciComm Hub.
Although this is a difficult time for research, it doesn’t have to be in the future. As scientists we have a responsibility to promote the importance of our work, both on the local scale and beyond. Working together, we can help to alleviate the inequity that has stagnated the current funding situation to promote a healthier scientific landscape for our, and future generations.
Current and historical R&D budget information can be found here.
Written by Kathy Myers.