The failure of Congress to approve funding for the National Institutes of Health for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1 is yet another blow to patients and families whose hopes for alleviating their burden of disease and disability are intertwined with groundbreaking biomedical research.
On behalf of the physicians, scientists and health professionals at the University of Pittsburgh, who are committed to improving the health of our community, I call on Congress to pass an NIH funding bill that restores the indiscriminate budget cuts enacted two years ago as part of budget sequestration.
For nearly 70 years, the nation’s research investment through NIH has improved our understanding of the causes of disease, increased life expectancy, and enhanced the health and well-being of Americans everywhere. Every day, physicians and scientists at the nation’s medical schools, teaching hospitals and universities see the promise that biomedical research brings.
Over time, NIH-funded research has led to a decline of more than 60 percent in deaths from heart disease and stroke. NIH-supported advances have led to tests to predict breast cancer recurrence, the discovery of genetic markers for complex illnesses, improved asthma treatments and the near-elimination of HIV transmission between mother and child. These and other medical breakthroughs have saved tens of thousands of lives, while new prevention methods and treatments continue to save countless more.
All of us – yes, even doctors and legislators – are going to be patients one day. We all get to sit on the exam table in that awkward paper gown. I urge our representatives to consider what it is like to face uncertainty in that moment.
For example, should you go forward with surgery if you don’t know whether your particular cancer is going to grow and spread or simply remain dormant? If you learn that you show signs of Alzheimer’s disease, are there steps you can take to preserve the function you have so that you can live independently for as long as possible? The most unsettling response to questions like these is, “We don’t know enough to answer that right now.”
With support from the federal government, researchers are helping to provide better answers. For example, they are developing new gene tests to identify which prostate cancers require aggressive treatment; exploring how brain health is influenced by lifestyle choices, depression and other factors to possibly prevent dementia and cognitive decline; and creating new insights into pancreatitis treatment by identifying unanticipated relationships to cystic fibrosis.
Physicians and scientists at U.S. medical schools and teaching hospitals conduct more than half of all external research funded by NIH.
Despite the many important life-saving discoveries resulting from NIH-supported research, recent budget cuts slashed NIH’s budget by $1.7 billion over the past year, which led directly to an estimated 1,000 fewer research labs being funded than just the year before.
In 2012, NIH-funded research supported more than 400,000 jobs across the country. The nation’s investment in NIH also is the foundation for long-term U.S. global competitiveness in industries such as biotechnology, medical device manufacturing and pharmaceutical development.
The United States is the world’s leader in medical innovation. Nobody doubted that fact when the NIH appropriation doubled between 1998 and 2003. Now, China, India and other countries are challenging our dominance by vastly increasing public funding for medical research. By failing to sustain our commitment to medical research, we risk losing our leadership position at the most critical scientific frontier of the 21st century.
We at U.S. medical schools and teaching hospitals, urge Congress to restore the NIH budget and reaffirm medical research as a top national priority. Americans deserve cures, not cuts.
Arthur S. Levine, M.D., served at the National Institutes of Health for three decades, and is currently senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh.