How many times when a deadly diagnosis hits a family do you hear people hope that scientists will find an answer before it is too late? It is understandable: We most ardently treasure gifts from medical research when our prospects for life and health hang in the balance.
Right now medical research itself faces a bleak future due to cuts in public funding. It is time for all of us as citizens to help rescue the very research that answers our deepest fears with the ultimate hope.
There is no question that U.S. dollars flowing into medical science have been in serious decline for a decade. This has happened even as investments in medical science and technology are increasing in China and some other countries. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, health research funding in the U.S. increased 6 percent a year from 1994 to 2004. Since 2004, however, the U.S. investment in cures and better medical treatments has sunk to less than 1 percent a year.
The budget standoff in Congress that led to “sequestration” dealt an additional blow to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), our primary agency for public funding of medical research. Over 700 promising research projects aimed at cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other priorities were eliminated last year alone. There is now a “no” coming from NIH for five out of every six highly rated research grants that are submitted. The reason: lack of funds from Congress.
What message does this send to those young Americans we encourage to do well in science, math, and technology so they might have a better life and take our country into the future? If they pursue careers in medical research, the future currently looks bleak. What choices do young people make when senior scientists are forced to close their labs or shelve their research projects?
The crucial test for NIH funding comes in the next few weeks. There will be votes in Congress on the discretionary budget for fiscal year 2016. The discretionary budget is everything that is not locked in by law: entitlements such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt. This is where Congress makes choices.
There is a strong lobby working hard for increasing defense spending above the limits imposed by sequestration. That would mean even deeper cuts to non-defense discretionary spending, including education, infrastructure, and, yes, medical research.
To be an effective champion for medical advances right now, ask your representatives in Congress to commit to the highest amount possible for the non-defense discretionary budget in 2016. This is the best way to insure that when your very life, and the lives of those you cherish, needs the ultimate protection born of medical research, it will be there for you.