Recent news of raids on research budgets illustrates how precarious government funding of scientific research has become. In an era of unprecedented momentum in the development of technologies and therapies for studying and treating disease, opportunities for new discoveries must not be lost due to shortsighted budgetary concerns.
In recent weeks, scientists have seen attempts at governmental grabs of research funds by both Greece and the EU. In Greece, the government is demanding that universities transfer cash reserves—including money to pay overhead costs for research—to the central bank, to help pay international creditors. The government has described the measure as temporary, but the situation is in flux. The European Commission's plan would divert €2.7 billion from the EU's 2014–2020 research budget to create the European Fund for Strategic Investments, a move opposed by the European Parliament.
Although research funding in the US is not under similar immediate attack, funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been flat since 2003. The exceedingly low rate of NIH grant approval has sapped morale and makes it extraordinarily difficult to keep research programs afloat.
Focusing on the funding situation in the US, a recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology bemoans declining investment in the US for basic research (dc.mit.edu/innovation-deficit). According to the report, this decline is a threat to the global leadership of the US in innovation. In the life sciences, the report highlights the need for investment in Alzheimer's disease, infectious disease and synthetic biology.
Despite this financial doom and gloom, advances in biomedical research are occurring at a remarkable rate. For example, new tools for genetic engineering, including genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9 technology, promise to transform how basic and preclinical research is done, and genetically engineered cells generated via zinc-finger nuclease technology have entered clinical trials for HIV. In the area of regenerative medicine, human pluripotent stem cells can now be used to generate an array of differentiated cell types for research and drug screening, and this technology is now in the clinic for treating age-related macular degeneration. In oncology, new technology to isolate circulating tumor DNA can enable early detection of mutations conferring resistance to therapy, and decades of research on the immune response to tumors in mice have yielded new immunotherapies that have achieved unprecedented levels of tumor remission in certain types of cancer. Evidently, funding of basic biomedical research can pay big clinical dividends.
Of course, the landscape of biomedical research funding also includes support from philanthropic organizations and the biopharma industry. Although these sources are vital, public funding is likewise indispensable, especially in supporting research that is not obviously translational and in supporting larger-scale projects that would be unattractive or unaffordable to other funders.
There are signs that some politicians are paying attention. In Europe, the German government is bucking the recent belt-tightening trend by increasing its research budget for 2018–2028 by €5 billion. In the US, the growing perception that biomedical science is underfunded is spurring new funding strategies. In recognition of advances in genetics and genomics and the rise of targeted therapies for cancer, the Precision Medicine Initiative, proposed by President Obama earlier this year, would inject $215 million into the 2016 budget, of which $130 million would go to the NIH and $70 million to the National Cancer Institute. Among other goals, this legislation would fund efforts to propel cancer treatments that are genetically tailored to the individual patient. The 21st Century Cures Act, taken up by the Energy and Commerce Committee of the US House of Representatives, includes substantially more money for the NIH than is currently being requested by the White House, and it entails the creation of a fund specifically for young scientists. A third approach, proposed by Senator Elizabeth Warren, would set aside money for research directly from pharmaceutical companies that settle with the government after breaking federal laws (Nat. Med. 21, 299, 2015).
None of these pieces of legislation is yet passed, but there appears to be bipartisan support for the goal of increasing research dollars. In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Newt Gingrich, a former US legislator and a noted fiscal conservative, has called for doubling funding for the NIH, based in part on an economic argument that increased funding for research can lower health costs. The 21st Century Cures Act has bipartisan sponsorship, which may increase its chances for passage.
Viewed optimistically, the new funding in Germany and signs that funding in the US is receiving a higher priority suggest that a tipping point may have been reached, at which the reality of new and innovative medical treatments penetrates the consciousness of the public and of politicians. But the recent news from Greece and the EU is anything but rosy, and the future of the proposed pieces of legislation in the US is unclear. Now is the moment to capitalize on the success of new technologies and treatments by giving research the funding it needs to continue to grow.