The Future of Biomedical Research Funding

By Patrick O’Leary

As I’ve written about previously on this blog, the consequences for the FDA of budget sequestration under the Budget Control Act of 2011 could be fairly severe (as well as raise some interesting legal questions). In a recent Online First piece for the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Hamilton Moses and E. Ray Dorsey note that sequestration would also have a serious impact–to the tune of $2.5 billion–on the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the primary source of public funding for biomedical research in the United States.

While Doctors Moses and Dorsey acknowledge that the immediate consequences of such a cut would primarily affect young researchers and new applicants for funding, “exacerbat[ing] tensions between large infrastructure projects . . . and small investigator-initiated grants, which historically have been the primary source of new clinical insights,” they also argue that sequestration presents an opportunity to reevaluate our emphasis on publicly funded biomedical research. In their telling, sequestration would be just the most recent step in a nearly decade-long trend of reducing federal funding, a trend that “presents an opportunity to reshape biomedical research.” Moses and Dorsey call for new private sources of research support, ranging from specialized financial instruments like Biomedical Research Bonds to an increased role for public charities and private foundations. The future of biomedical research, they argue, will be built on the private sector, not the federal government.

The challenges of shifting the burden of funding research to the private sector are many, of course. One particularly challenging question is whether private funds could effectively replace NIH’s significant role in funding “basic” research. Bhaven N. Sampat’s new article “Mission-Oriented Biomedical Research at the NIH” in Research Policy provides some context for the scale of the problem. Citing a 2010 study by Dr. Dorsey himself, Sampat notes that although NIH funding accounts for only about a third of U.S. biomedical research funding, “there is a sharp division of labor, with NIH funding concentrated further upstream, on ‘basic’ research than private sector funding” from private sector pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device firms. Although the role of private foundations has grown in recent years, Sampat notes that NIH funding continues to exceed all such funding “by a factor of six . . . .” Assuming we continue to value basic research, the capacity and willingness of private actors to fund such research thus remains a major question mark.

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