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Advocacy groups and the economic value of medical research

Your discussion on the economic impact of science (Nature 465, 682–684; 2010) is unjustifiably critical of advocacy groups.

For example, the US advocacy group Research!America presents an annual award that recognizes outstanding work by new economists who demonstrate the impact of medical research on the economy. This award, the Garfield Economic Impact Award, was established by Eugene Garfield, founder of the Institute for Scientific Information (now Thomson Reuters) and creator of the Science Citation Index. Garfield awardees are increasingly sought as sources and advisers by the White House, other elected officials and the media.

David Meltzer of the University of Chicago received the first Garfield Award in 2002 for developing mathematical tools to investigate whether a research plan is justified on economic grounds. He showed how to prioritize research projects and identify when further spending could be worthwhile.

The 2003 recipient, David Cutler of Harvard University, evaluated research into cardiovascular disease for the production of new therapies and information to guide patients' behaviour. He estimated the return to the economy from medical treatments to be about US$4 for every $1 spent, and from behavioural changes to be about $30 for every $1. He also found that there is a $7 economic return for every $1 spent on technological innovations in heart-attack care.

Although I hope that economists will corroborate the view that the economic impact of research is important, our commitment is to obtaining accurate economic information, so that policy-makers, researchers, businesses, advocates and the public will have a stronger basis for decision-making.

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Competing financial interests: In 2009, Research!America received US$15,000 from the Eugene Garfield Foundation in support of the Garfield Award; $10,000 of that amount was awarded to the recipients. Research!America anticipates similar funding from the foundation in 2010.

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Woolley, M. Advocacy groups and the economic value of medical research. Nature 466, 28 (2010).

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