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an online version of the magazine Fall 2007
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Beyond the Boost

Biomedical research funding needs sustained increases over the long haul.

 

By Dean/CEO Edward D. Miller, M.D.

 

momentum
Illustration by Sherrill Cooper
WHILE I AM ENCOURAGED THE NEW PRESIDENT VIEWS ACADEMIC MEDICAL CENTERS AS ECONOMIC ENGINES, THERE'S NO INDICATION CONGRESS FULLY GRASPS THE VALUE OF STEADILY INCREASING SUPPORT FOR LABORATORY RESEARCH. YET WE KNOW PREDICTABLE FUNDING INCREASES ARE A KEY TO FINDING CURES AND NEW TREATMENTS.

Medical researchers love a good mystery. After all, their careers focus on solving intricate scientific puzzles of the human body. Unraveling complicated problems lies at the heart of biomedical research.

But there’s another mystery taking place in Washington that we’re watching. This one concerns President Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package and its impact on research funding. At this early stage, there are more questions than answers.

In the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the president and Congress allocated $8.2 billion in new research dollars to the National Institutes of Health. This is great news for Hopkins scientists, since most of the stimulus money will be distributed through competitive grants— an area where our investigators and multidisciplinary institutes excel. Prior NIH submissions that didn’t receive funding now will get stimulus dollars if the proposals were “highly scientifically meritorious.” That’s a particularly welcome development for many of our younger researchers. Existing grant recipients, meanwhile, can seek supplemental funds to accelerate or expand their bench work.

These are not, however, regular NIH grants. All funds must be spent within two years. Quarterly reports are required. Researchers must produce results within 24 months. Indeed, I get the impression the government’s emphasis is on generating jobs in the lab to bolster the economy, not on sustained advances in scientific knowledge.

There’s the rub. While I am encouraged the new president views academic medical centers as economic engines, there’s no indication Congress fully grasps the value of steadily increasing support for laboratory research. Yet we know predictable funding increases are a key to finding cures and new treatments.

We also know research suffers when NIH’s budget becomes a yo-yo or is level-funded at less than the rate of inflation, which has been true since 2004. On the other hand, we saw a spectacular burst of biomedical advances between 1998 and 2003 as Washington boosted NIH research funds by 100 percent.

In late February, the White House issued a broad budget outline calling for “a multi-year plan to double cancer research.” What a positive, dramatic step that would be, if approved by Congress. Yet this worthy objective sidesteps a larger issue: Will Washington increase long-term funding for research into other deadly and disabling diseases? At the moment, I don’t sense a level of support in Congress similar to that of 1998–2003. We need more congressional champions.

Part of the problem is that the nation’s 126 academic health care centers are concentrated in a limited number of cities. Most congressmen don’t have a research-focused center in their district. They understand the benefits of community hospitals but not the distant AMCs where most basic and translational research occurs.

Too often, when politicians and the public hear the term “medical research,” they think of the pharmaceutical industry. And why not? It is hard to turn on television without seeing a commercial from Big Pharma touting a new drug.

But that’s misleading. Most discoveries occur at research-driven medical centers like Hopkins. We provide a nurturing, collegial environment that fosters new ideas. It is the individual investigator, usually with NIH support, whose curiosity leads to basic discoveries about the human body, which eventually leads to the design of drugs or devices.

Academic medical centers must do a better job telling this story. We’ve got to tell NIH’s story, too. That massive federal agency is the backbone of biomedical research in this country, yet few people know of its successes.

We’ll need partners in this effort, such as the American Heart Association, Research!America, and the Diabetes Foundation. Together, we must excite people so they pick up their phones or e-mail their congressmen demanding more support for biomedical research because of its incredible implications for the future of this country.

Such activism is being encouraged by a new grassroots outreach and advertising campaign, founded by Johns Hopkins and several national nonprofit organizations. Called Research Means Hope (http://www.researchmeanshope.org), the effort is using radio and print advertising, as well as online and social media, to explain the importance of NIH funding for medical breakthroughs and to spur people to ask their legislators in Washington to support sustained funding increases.   

The campaign’s Web site makes it easy for users to join this cause, by sending an e-mail or letter to their congressional representatives, joining the conversation through Twitter and Facebook, and encouraging their colleagues, friends and family members to do the same.

We’re fortunate that senior Senate leaders, such as Ted Kennedy, Tom Harkin, Arlen Specter, and Barbara Mikulski, are vocal supporters of biomedical research. They made possible that massive infusion of NIH stimulus money.

But what about the next generation of congressional leaders? They are the ones who will be asked to continue this momentum. We must find younger advocates for research funding, such as Maryland’s Chris Van Hollen, whose Montgomery County district includes NIH’s Bethesda campus. Research Means Hope aims to help create those champions, by building support among their constituents for NIH funding increases.

I know those stimulus dollars will give Hopkins investigators a tremendous boost over the next two years. Maintaining that elevated funding level, though, will be a challenge. It will require all of us to tell our story more effectively.

 
 
 
 
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