Vantage point: Research cuts would slow medical advances
Because of our national investment in basic biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health, the United States is the world leader in discoveries in the life sciences; Americans have benefited from new treatments and cures that have improved their health and prolonged their lives. Indeed, we are the envy of the world in discovery and innovation.
But we are now on a precipice. As a result of the inability of the so-called congressional Super Committee to deliver a budget proposal, lawmakers are required to make $1.2 trillion in cuts, half from defense and half from domestic programs, including research sponsored by the NIH. Reducing our investment in medical research surely would slow the progress we have made in new fundamental discoveries that can ultimately improve the health of our nation’s citizens.
Consider the evidence: The death rates for heart disease and stroke have fallen by 60 percent and 70 percent, respectively, since World War II. Over the past 15 years, the incidence of cancer is down by 11.4 percent among women and 19.2 percent among men because of better detection methods and more effective treatments. Today, individuals diagnosed in their 20s with HIV, once considered a death sentence, may receive antiretroviral therapy and live to age 70 or beyond.
These and other advances in our health have been built on basic scientific research — work that may not have had a clear application when it was conducted but which opened the way to a better understanding of human biology. This knowledge then was translated into tools or devices to diagnose, treat and prevent disease.
For instance, today’s lifesaving treatments for HIV were built upon advances in a basic understanding of how the immune system works. I witnessed this personally when I began my own work in pediatric AIDS, which would not have been possible without the basic science discoveries about retroviruses that took place more than a decade before HIV was even known. Similarly, at Stanford, work aimed at understanding how immune cells recognize antibodies ultimately led to a groundbreaking treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, as well as other debilitating conditions.
Innovation and discovery not only improve human health, but they also are vital to jobs and economic recovery. One recent study noted that nearly a half-million jobs across the country were directly or indirectly supported by NIH funding. Overall, NIH funding produced nearly $70 billion in new economic activity in 2010. Here in California, the effect of this research accounts for $5.3 billion in economic activity and 35,734 jobs. An additional effect on medical research and jobs in California has taken place because of our residents’ investment in stem cell research through Proposition 71, making us the world leader and principal beneficiary of this incredibly important research agenda.
President Barack Obama and Congress need to remember that the U.S. medical research enterprise is an economic juggernaut and the envy of the rest of the world — a leadership position that no one wants to lose. More important, both the president and Congress should think about how the health of future generations depends on the basic research being done today. Cuts to our basic biomedical research today may save money in the short run, but it will come at the cost of our most precious resource: the health and well-being of our children and grandchildren.
Dean Philip Pizzo, MD, wrote this op-ed for the San Jose Mercury News. It appeared on Jan. 31.
Stanford Medicine integrates research, medical education and health care at its three institutions - Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Health Care (formerly Stanford Hospital & Clinics), and Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. For more information, please visit the Office of Communication & Public Affairs site at http://mednews.stanford.edu.