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In the late 1990s, the U.S. Congress helped launch, through funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a renaissance in American medical discovery. During the renaissance, human genome sequencing was completed, powerful new research tools suddenly made the impossible seem possible, cancer and other disease rates began to decline as better diagnoses and treatment options were identified, and the potential to transform medicine seemed limitless.
But, in 2003, the NIH budget flat-lined and inflation began to erode the purchasing power of the nation’s leading scientific agency. By 2008, the NIH budget, adjusted for inflation, had declined 13 percent and the historic momentum seemed to have dissipated. In 2007 and 2008, Burness Communications worked with a consortium of 16 leading academic research institutions to write, produce, and disseminate two special reports illustrating the toll that stagnant funding is having on medical research and the investigators who rely on NIH support.
The first report, Within Our Grasp—Or Slipping Away? Assuring a New Era of Scientific and Medical Progress, described how five years of flat funding slowed the pace of discoveries and squandered opportunities for medical breakthroughs. The second report, A Broken Pipeline? Flat Funding of the NIH Puts a Generation of Science at Risk, illustrated how financial pressures are impacting the rising generation of young scientists. In competition with senior investigators for very limited resources, more and more junior researchers are moving to private industry, taking jobs abroad, or leaving science altogether. As a result, a new generation of scientific discovery is at risk.
“Flat funding is putting America at risk and discouraging our best and brightest researchers,” said Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust when she presented the reports to Congress and testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions in March 2008. The reports also were featured at two press conferences, including one with Senate Appropriations leaders Tom Harkin and Arlen Specter. Each event resulted in substantial media coverage for the reports and the NIH funding issue. “Through these kinds of reports, we are trying to put a human face on the problem to help Congress and the public gain a better understanding of the consequences for patients who are looking to this research to produce cures for disease,” says Kevin Casey, associate vice president of Government, Community, and Public Affairs at Harvard.
Today, American medical research is at a crossroads. It will take years to regain lost momentum, but during his 2009 Inaugural Address, President Barack Obama pledged to “restore science to its rightful place” and his economic stimulus plan included $10 billion for the NIH. Researchers, physicians, and patients now have a reason to hope that the damage done in recent years to America’s scientific research pipeline will soon be repaired.