The American Society for Microbiology (ASM) is alarmed by the erosion in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and for research which has the potential to yield important scientific discoveries. The President’s FY 2008 budget request for NIH will exacerbate the stress on funding for biomedical research.
Fiscal support for NIH has steadily eroded since 2003 as appropriations have flattened or even decreased. In the last four years, the NIH budget has not kept pace with biomedical research and development inflation and the agency has lost about 10 percent of its purchasing power when adjusted for biomedical inflation. This situation, combined with the accelerating pace of promising research advances that cannot be explored, is harmful to young scientists as well as established investigators who are experiencing difficulty continuing their research activities. The future of the research enterprise and our country’s competitiveness in science and technology are now at risk.
The federal government funds one-third of all biomedical research in the United States and the NIH is the largest federal supporter of research and development at US colleges and universities. NIH funding has a significant impact on research and educational activities at academic institutions across the country. Failure to provide increased funding for the NIH and its grant recipients ultimately will decrease future US productivity in the sciences, with unfortunate consequences to public health, education and economic well being.
Federal funding is essential for continued advancement of basic and applied research and the development of new preventions, therapies and cures for chronic and infectious diseases. The discovery of new knowledge depends on robust federal support for research. NIH funding provides the basis for training a highly skilled workforce that is needed for biotechnology and other technology driven industries. If the NIH budget continues to decline below biomedical research inflation, the nation will be at risk for losing its competitive edge in biomedical research globally. The trend of diminishing support for scientific research must be reversed, even during this time of constrained resources.
The Success of NIH Research and the Need to Increase Research Support
RNA interference (RNAi): The award of the 2006 Nobel prize in medicine to US scientists for basic research describing the mechanism by which cells regulate natural genes or suppress genes carried by invading viruses reminds us that investments in research are vital to the development of applications that improve human health and well being and impact the nation’s economy. Scientific success stories like that of the Nobel winning RNAi work demonstrate the importance of investigator-initiated basic research and the need for continued federal investment in long-term, basic research. Understanding the mechanism of RNA interference has suggested ways to create superior new therapies against such disorders as macular degeneration and respiratory syncytial virus (a common childhood infection). Start-up biotechnology firms and major pharmaceutical companies have quickly invested billions of dollars into RNAi research projects, making this new research specialty one of the leading areas in commercial drug development. The first drug candidates already are entering early human clinical trials, and the federal government has just awarded a $23 million contract to a private company to develop RNAi based drugs as a defense against bioterrorism.
Pandemic influenza and seasonal influenza: NIH supported research is strengthening public health efforts to address the potentially devastating health threats from pandemic influenza. Research being conducted and supported by the NIH is improving preparations to protect against potential human-to-human transmission of the H5N1 avian influenza virus. Basic research is increasing our understanding of how influenza viruses replicate, interact with their hosts, stimulate immune response and evolve into new strains. These basic research findings form the basis for the design of new antiviral drugs, diagnostics and pre-pandemic vaccines. In December of 2006, NIH began the first human trial of a DNA vaccine designed to prevent H5N1 avian influenza infection. NIH research is also improving our ability to respond to seasonal influenza epidemics which cause about 36,000 deaths in the United States and 200,000 hospitalizations.
HIV/AIDS: A recent study highlights the contributions of basic and applied research on HIV/AIDS, which has led to HIV therapies that have provided nearly 3 million years of extended life to people with AIDS in the US since 1989 and prevented 2,900 infant infections from infected mothers. Since the early 1980s, NIH has invested $30 billion in HIV/AIDS research, contributing to the fact that a person initiating HIV therapy in 2003 could expect to live an estimated 13 years longer than if he or she had been diagnosed in 1988.
Emerging infectious diseases: Recent evidence indicates that some diseases such as ulcers, certain cancers, and heart disease that were previously believed to be caused by genetic or environmental factors can be caused by microbes. The completion of the DNA sequence of bacterial pathogens is providing valuable insights into how microbial pathogens evolve and the extent of gene transfer between pathogens. These research advances are revealing new ways to confront infection, including the identification of novel targets for antimicrobials and new approaches to vaccine development
Cancer: Recent data show that the risk for dying from cancer continues to drop. Advances in cancer prevention, early detection and effective treatments contributed to the decrease in deaths from 2003 to 2004, the most recent mortality data available. Death rates dropped for four major cancer sites in men and women, including lung, breast, prostate and colorectal. This marked the second consecutive year of decline in actual numbers of cancer deaths in the United States. NIH supports cancer research with detection and treatment potential and newly published results give hope for future successes against cancer. For example, a new gene therapy alters the body’s own immune cells to shrink advanced melanoma, the first time gene therapy has been used successfully to treat cancer. Other cutting-edge research, begun in 2005 as The Cancer Genome Atlas (TCGA) Pilot Project at NIH, is beginning to identify genetic changes underlying the most important and common forms of major cancers, beginning with genomic maps of breast and colorectal cancers that reveal many mutated genes not previously known to play a role in cancer. The multi-institution TCGA program ultimately will study changes in a patient’s genetic sequence over time and then use that information to design highly targeted, individually based interventions.
NIH research programs require long-term financial support to maintain high quality, productive efforts with real world results.
ASM Recommends a 7 Percent Increase for NIH for FY 2008
Progress in biomedical research will move forward at a slower pace despite the critically important need to explore new research opportunities that have been created by investments in research. NIH funding has been projected to fall below estimated R&D inflation in the Administration’s budget until FY 2012, while inflation and rising costs of research will further exacerbate budget declines. Budget short falls for the NIH will seriously undercut the world class science traditionally supported by the agency, currently the largest federal investor in both basic and applied research in the United States.
The ASM urges policy makers to recognize that NIH supported research is a principal foundation of public health and US innovation and leadership in the life sciences. Congress has authorized $32.8 billion for the NIH in FY 2008. The FY 2007 Joint Funding Resolution currently before Congress includes an addition of $620 million to the NIH’s FY 2007 budget. The ASM urges Congress to further increase the NIH budget and provide at least a 7 percent increase in appropriations for the NIH in FY 2008. This increase will help NIH to start to recapture ground lost to inflation since 2003 and to allow it to take advantage of many new and exciting research opportunities to improve human health and well being.