Budget battles never seem to end in Washington, DC. And, like a real battle, there are casualties. Among them are people with diseases and disabilities hoping for new medical breakthroughs.
I understand that not everything can be a priority, but I just don’t think it’s in our national interest for one area — medical research — not to be one of the very highest. At this rate the United States will quickly be in the rear-view mirror to countries like China that are investing heavily in medical research. Every American breakthrough currently on hold could be Chinese breakthroughs of tomorrow.
Over the last decade, in dollars adjusted for inflation, the purchasing power of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget has dropped by about 20 percent. As a result, far fewer top-tier, highly promising research proposals are being funded.
This will only get worse as automatic spending cuts continue over the next nine years. Medical research has long been a bipartisan issue — diseases don’t have a party affiliation — and it should remain that way.
I’m calling on the Arizona Congressional delegation to work across party lines, agree that research is a top priority for the people of the Grand Canyon State, and work with Democratic and Republican leadership to fully fund the NIH, replace the sequester and put a stop to America’s slide in this area.
Keep in mind that medical research isn’t just spending — it is a real investment with extremely positive economic impact. For example, sequencing the human genome cost around $3.8 billion but has generated $800 billion in economic activity as of 2010. Since 2008, NIH has awarded over $674 million to Arizona institutions through 1,730 awards.
Cutting our national investment in research shatters the hopes of people with chronic illness, rare diseases, and those living with disabilities as well as those who will join these ranks in the future.
Therapies and cures will bring new economic activity, allow people to remain in the workforce, and of course, improve quality of life.
Take multiple sclerosis (MS) as an example. On average, it costs $70,000 per year to live with MS. With nearly half a million Americans with the disease, MS costs society over $30 billion a year in lost wages and medical expenses. The hundreds of thousands of people with MS and millions more with cancer, heart disease or other conditions see what’s happening in Washington and wonder whether ongoing budget battles jeopardize medical research that could be their ultimate hope for a better tomorrow.
As recently as two decades ago there were no MS medications. Now there are 10 FDA approved therapies and other new treatments in the pipeline, thanks to discoveries funded in part by the NIH and the National MS Society.
Sequestration means 2,300 fewer research grants — fully one quarter of new and competing grants that the agency expects to fund. In total, the federal government funds approximately $120 million in annual MS research and the National MS Society funds nearly $50 million per year through privately raised funds, a collaborative approach that led to current MS medications. Cutting back on the federal research investment will slow progress toward a world free of MS.
Inaction has real-life impact. Stalled clinical trials could mean the difference between life and death for some. New drugs and devices sitting in the pipeline waiting for approval will impact quality of life for many.
And layoffs and lost economic activity will reverberate in a way that could impact us all.
I implore my Arizona Congressional delegation to position research as a top priority, and work with leadership across party lines to replace the sequester and fully fund the NIH.
• Jim Elfline is president of the MS Society in Arizona, which addresses the impact of the federal budget battle and cut in funding to national institutes of health on life-saving research.