CONGRESS HAS finally started to boost federal funding for biomedical research. The omnibus spending bill just signed by the president will provide a vital increase for the National Institutes of Health — its budget will go up 6.6 percent, or $2 billion from the current $30.1 billion. This is the largest single increase in more than a decade and signals a much-needed change of direction.
NIH is an engine that drives basic research in biomedicine in the United States, and these are exciting times, offering immense promise for better understanding of how disease occurs and how to treat illness. Just one example of the startling accomplishments of late is the new genetic technique known as CRISPR-Cas9, which gives biologists unprecedented power to edit and repair DNA. It could result in creation of a gene “drive” in which a selected genetic trait can be pushed through a whole population; for example, mosquitoes could be made resistant to the malaria parasite, and the disease could no longer be spread by them. Basic research funded by NIH helped lead to the new technique.
NIH Director Francis S. Collins has expressed concern in recent years that with the number of successful grant applications dropping to historic lows, young scientists might abandon the laboratory for other careers or take their research ambitions abroad. From fiscal 1998 to 2003, NIH saw its program-level funding double, but then it went stagnant for more than a decade. To make matters worse, recent sequestrations and shutdowns have created a climate of instability that is deeply disruptive to scientific research, which often unfolds over a long timeline.
The fresh injection of money includes $200 million that will allow NIH to launch President Obama’s precision medicine initiative, an approach to disease prevention and treatment that seeks to account for individual variations in genes, environment and lifestyles. The effort will attempt to acquire the scientific evidence needed to move this promising concept into clinical practice. There’s also $350 million in new spending for Alzheimer’s disease research, a major increase, and $85 million for the initiative to gain a better understanding of the human brain. After many years when it was a secondary priority, Congress has also added $100 million for research on antimicrobial resistance, the alarming trend in which bacteria and viruses are evolving to fight back against antibiotics and other drugs that are essential in modern medicine.
Progress in all these fields is difficult, and there may not be results right away. Biomedical research must be seen as a long-term investment. Now that Congress has done the right thing for one year, it must continue to provide a sturdy, multi-year funding platform for NIH and avoid going back to the days of slow stagnation.