Biomedical research needs more consistent funding

This summer William Talman became president of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, an organization that advocates the advancement of biological and biomedical research. He is a professor of neurology and neuroscience at the University of Iowa in Iowa City and a practicing physician at the university’s hospital and at the Iowa City Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. During a recent meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C., Talman said he plans to promote increased funding for biomedical research during his one-year term as FASEB president. In July he sent a letter to Congress requesting that the 2011 budget of the National Institutes of Health be increased to $37 billion, about $6 billion more than its current level and $5 billion more than the Obama administration has proposed. Science News science writer intern Gwyneth Dickey, who attended the Washington meeting, reports excerpts from Talman’s comments.

We’ve already made huge inroads into improved medical practice as a result of biomedical scientific research, but more is needed. Iowa City VA Medical Center

It’s not easy being an advocate nowadays, but it’s natural for me to advocate for the biomedical sciences. In my 40 years as a physician, I’ve seen remarkable changes that have come about in clinical medicine as a result of basic biomedical scientific research. Clearly, the influence of mathematics, physics, chemistry, as well as biomedical sciences has remarkably impacted how we practice medicine and how we provide for our patients. For example, neuroimaging has made it possible for us to do testing on patients in ways that we couldn’t have dreamt of when I started in medicine — ways that are safe for the patient, exclude complications, reduce hospital stays and improve patients’ life expectancy and their health while they’re living.

We’ve already made huge inroads into improved medical practice as a result of biomedical scientific research, but more is needed. There’s no question that the opportunities are greater now for further discoveries than they’ve ever been before.

But the challenges are also there. We recognize in FASEB that we’re living in a world where we’re all impacted by the economic situation. We have seen at the NIH a rather remarkable, somewhat unexpected increase in funding from the ARRA [American Recovery and Re­investment Act]. Those supplemental funds were to the tune of about $10 billion over two years, equating to about $4.5 billion in actual research monies that went out each year of the two years. That seems like a lot of money, but the fact is that the ARRA funds really accomplished a recovery of some of the losses of purchasing power that the NIH experienced from about 2003. If they go away, we calculate a loss of 15 percent of the purchasing power and a loss of perhaps 4,000 grants from the NIH alone. We’re very concerned about that. If the average NIH individual investigator-initiated grant is $250,000, then for every million dollars lost, there are four grants that are not funded.

We’re worried about falling off the cliff and the very detrimental effects that it could have. As U.S. Rep. Brian Bilbray [of California] pointed out, “our government’s peak-and-valley pattern of scientific funding must be replaced by a steady, consistent funding stream. It is disruptive to the flow of the scientific process if funding levels are flying high one year only to be followed the next year with a crash landing.”

This is FASEB’s message and it has been for years. More funding along with predictable and sustainable growth will accelerate progress toward longer, healthier and more productive lives, and that’s the goal that we all have.

We are very encouraged at one level by the philosophy that has been expressed by members of the administration and by Congress. There is no question that it is going to take a major effort to deal with the economic difficulties that we’re facing in our country.

There’s talk of putting caps on funding, reducing funding for discretionary spending. We’ve all heard that. So when we see for the first time in the past eight years, a presidential budget coming with increases in NIH funding (not to the level that FASEB recommended, but increases) at a time when there are decreases in other things, we are grateful that the folks who are making these decisions recognize the importance of research.

The people I’ve met on Capitol Hill, they’re bright people. They have the same goals we have. They have different ways of approaching the goals on different sides of the aisle, but they’re very intelligent people who want to listen to us and they recognize the value of the biomedical research product.

So we’re optimistic but realistic at the same time. But none of us really has a crystal ball as to what the end point’s going to be.