Challenge and opportunity

How academic medical centers can help reverse disturbing trends

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D.
Dean, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine
Associate Vice Chancellor for Health Affairs
Published: January, 2009

“In the middle of every difficulty lies opportunity.” Albert Einstein

Jeff Balser, M.D., Ph.D.
Photograph by Joe Howell
The nation’s biomedical research community is indisputably experiencing challenging times. The budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the primary source of biomedical research dollars, has not increased for several years; when adjusted for inflation, NIH funding has actually declined by 13 percent over the last five years. This, combined with a decline in U.S. students choosing academic research careers ultimately may have a negative impact on worldwide health and could lead to the erosion of biomedical science as a fundamental pillar of the U.S. economy.

In short, we are sowing the seeds of attrition in a magnificent edifice: our nation’s biomedical research enterprise.

This issue of Lens magazine examines this unprecedented challenge to our future, and explores ways that we -- the research community at Vanderbilt Medical Center with our colleagues throughout the country – can advocate responsibly and effectively for progress.

Why is Vanderbilt raising its voice?

We are among the fortunate academic medical centers that are seamlessly connected to a leading research university, and we have leveraged that overall strength and connectivity to invest in programs that will greatly accelerate the realization of individualized and cost-effective drug discovery, diagnostic testing, and healthcare delivery. It is therefore our responsibility to clearly articulate why expanding biomedical research – even at a time of economic adversity – will allow us to leap forward and dramatically improve both our economy and the treatment and prevention of human disease, while reducing the cost of health care for our nation.

Here’s why. The science funded by NIH has a far broader economic impact than in the long-term improvements in health care and quality of life; broader even than the direct effect of dollars invested across our campuses. Every $1.00 of NIH money spent results in about $2.30 in economic output (increased goods and services) in the local and state-wide economy, according to a June 2008 report by Families USA. In fiscal year 2008, for example, Vanderbilt Medical Center received over $420 million in funds from outside agencies, the majority from the NIH and other government sources. This resulted in over $1 billion of new business activity that created and supported more than 7,000 jobs at wages that greatly exceed that national average.

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