Need a way to confront some of the federal government’s long-term — and daunting — fiscal challenges? Newt Gingrich has a suggestion: Double the $30 billion budget of the National Institutes of Health.
It happened once before: Between 1998, when Gingrich was speaker of the House, and 2003, the U.S. doubled down on funding for medical research.
In a New York Times OpEd published in April, Gingrich urged today’s political leaders to do it again. “[W]hen it comes to breakthroughs that could cure — not just treat — the most expensive diseases, government … alone can bring the necessary resources to bear,” Gingrich wrote. “And it is ultimately on the hook for the costs of illness. It’s irresponsible and shortsighted, not prudent, to let financing for basic research dwindle.”
Since the NIH’s budget doubled more than a decade ago, funding has been stagnant while the cost of conducting research has grown and the amount of research activity in need of funding has increased. Today’s $30 billion budget for the 27 centers and institutes with specific focus areas that make up the NIH — cancer, aging and drug abuse, for example — is about $400 million smaller than it was in 2009. If NIH were funded at the same level in 2014 as it was in 2003, with inflation taken into account, the institutes’ budget last year would have been $4.8 billion larger.
Since 2003, the number of grant applications submitted to NIH has grown by more than 47 percent while the number of grant awards has dropped 11 percent. That means fewer awards to support research that can lead to the next breakthrough drug, preventive disease screening technique or effective and economical cancer treatment.
Fortunately, many in today’s Congress are on board with an NIH funding boost. In annual appropriations bills for the 2016 fiscal year, panels from the House and Senate earlier this year recommended a budget boost; the Senate panel recommended $2 billion more while the House panel recommended $1.1 billion.
And in July, the House voted overwhelmingly in favor of raising funding by $8.75 billion over the next five years — a $1.75 billion boost every year. (Reps. Chellie Pingree and Bruce Poliquin supported this legislation.)
Now, the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — on which Maine Sen. Susan Collins serves — is at work on a companion bill. The Senate should support the same $8.75 billion, five-year NIH funding boost but without the drug company perks that made it into the House bill. Collins supported the $2 billion boost for 2016. She hasn’t yet taken a position on the longer-term increase but said in a statement, “There is simply no investment that promises greater returns for Americans than our investment in biomedical research.”
A share of the additional NIH funding would make its way to Maine. The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor relies on NIH funds for more than half of its $90 million research budget, accounting for 72 percent of NIH funding that flows to Maine.
Jackson Laboratory researchers are exploring the genetic roots of cancer and other diseases — knowledge that could lead to prevention, earlier detection and more individualized and targeted treatments. The research institution is also looking to expand its genetics-based research into drug addiction and Alzheimer’s, said Robert Braun, vice president of research.
These are diseases that affect and kill thousands of Mainers. Cancer accounts for about a quarter of deaths in the U.S. Alzheimer’s is the sixth leading cause of death and the only one of the top 10 without a treatment. But there’s promising research in the works that could lead to earlier diagnosis based on genetics and family history, said Laurie Trenholm, executive director of the Alzheimer’s Association Maine chapter.
Last year, NIH devoted $586 million to Alzheimer’s research. Meanwhile, researchers have estimated they could easily spend $2 billion annually to advance promising investigations.
“We’re really talking about spending more to save a tremendous amount down the road, even in the next very few years, on care and support,” Trenholm said.
That’s why more spending for NIH should figure into a long-term debt reduction strategy.