Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Biomedical research funding

Funding for biomedical research doubles in last decade
From 1994 to 2003, total funding for biomedical research in the U.S. doubled to $94.3 billion, with industry providing 57 percent of the funding and the National Institutes of Health providing 28 percent, according to a study in the September 21 issue of JAMA, a theme issue on medical research.

Lead author Hamilton Moses III, M.D., of the Alerion Institute, North Garden, Va., presented the findings of the study today at a JAMA media briefing on medical research.

Few comprehensive analyses of the sources of financial support of biomedical research and uses of these funds have been available, according to background information in the article. This results in inadequate information on which to base investment decisions and can create a barrier to judging the value of research to society. Previous articles have examined specific sectors, but few have done so comprehensively.

Dr. Moses and colleagues conducted a study to determine the level and trend from 1994 to 2004 of basic, translational (the application of knowledge of basic science research to clinical care), and clinical U.S. biomedical research support from the major sponsors of this research: (1) federal government, (2) state and local governments, (3) private not-for-profit entities including foundations, and (4) industry.

The actual spending on biomedical R&D increased from $37.1 billion to $94.3 billion. Allowing for inflation, that's a double.

What's the point of mentioning this? Well, $94 billion is hardly an insignificant amount of money. For comparison, the entire NASA budget in 2005 was around $16 billion. So biomedical research receives almost 6 times as much funding as space exploration. That has obvious career implications for people now in college or looking for a career switch.

It also suggests that in the coming decades we should expect some significant payoffs from this research. Here's just one datapoint. I watch press releases coming out in most scientific areas. Right now I am seeing 3 to 4 times as many press releases announcing new developments in cancer research as I did just one year ago. There are similar increases in announcements related to research in Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, and infectious diseases from last year at this time. It's possible that this just means researchers and their supporters are more hungry for publicity now.

But I think it's more likely that there are real increases in the number of significant discoveries, too. In cancer, for instance, it appears we are finding out a lot more about the genetic changes involved in different specific types of cancer. We are "reverse engineering" the typical ways that each different kind of cancer operates. I don't think that such knowledge can avoid being useful in actually treating the different types of cancer, even if it takes the usual 8 to 10 years to bring new drugs to market.

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