Uncle Sam: Scientist  pg. 5

Economic drain

The trend of increased federal support came to an abrupt halt, however, during the George W. Bush administration, which funded the NIH at a flat level, amounting to a negative sum gain in research grants when factoring in the inflation rate.

Scientists complain that the flat NIH budget is squelching innovation and slowing progress. In the neurosciences, for example, the funding crunch has essentially squandered momentum that was blazing new inroads in the 1990s, the “decade of the brain,” asserts Randy Blakely, Ph.D., director of the Vanderbilt Center for Molecular Neuroscience.

During this period, “we saw the convergence of the disciplines of molecular biology, genetics, biochemistry, brain imaging, developmental biology and translational work,” Blakely says. “We got up to speed to really tackle most, if not all of the major brain diseases. Then we geared down.”

This has happened at a most inopportune time, he continues. The American population is aging, which automatically puts more people at risk for neurological diseases of the elderly, like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Also, soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with neurological problems and traumatic brain injuries are taxing the boundaries of current medical knowledge.

Inadequate funding of research ultimately is a drain on the economy, scientists insist.

“Biomedical science is a huge part of the economic engine of this country,” says Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D., dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine and associate vice chancellor for Health Affairs. “Science is fueling start-up companies and industry because it’s discovered, published. It’s information available that those companies use to do their next thing.”

John Oates, M.D., believes federal support is key to maintaining the nation’s pharmaceutical pipeline.
Photo by Joe Howell
One reason Congress agreed to double the NIH budget, from $13.6 billion in 1998 to $27.3 billion in 2003, was to preserve the preeminence of the country’s pharmaceutical industry, says John Oates, M.D., founding director of Vanderbilt’s Division of Clinical Pharmacology.

NIH is the powerhouse for the discoveries necessary for the development of new drugs. “If we lose our superiority in that area, it’s going to be one more area that we’re not exporting in,” Oates argues. “We’ll have to go back to making shoes and sending them to China.”

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