The National Institutes of Health is an organization born in a one-room laboratory in 1887, where the research focused on cholera. A lone scientist and a microscope were the only occupants of that lab.
Now, the NIH, with an annual budget of just under $30 billion, funds health research that has global impact. In just the last few years, NIH funding has provided, both in its own labs and in those of scientists at universities nationwide, research and discovery into a malaria vaccine, AIDS prevention and treatment, breast cancer, diabetes drugs and advances in treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.
So the fact that scientists from Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have been among many in Washington campaigning for more funding for the NIH is no surprise. Both of those institutions have received NIH funding, of course, and both want to continue receiving it.
But scientists recognize the global impact of what the NIH does and the potentially profound effect of NIH-funded research on fighting and even preventing diseases and conditions that cause the loss of untold numbers of lives every year.
And yet, in recent years, the NIH has not seen the monumental increase in funding that its efforts deserve. Funding has, in fact, been flat and has even diminished a bit.
“The big concern we have,” said Raphael Valdivia, vice dean for basic science at Duke, “is the decreased in levels of funding for NIH and the impact not only on research going on now but also the impact on the next generation of scientists.
Absent more money, young scientists, he said, will abandon their early work and are “really dropping out of the pipeline.”
Research stymied is a discovery not made, a drug not developed, and even if early research has made progress, that progress will cease without the money to carry it on. Scientific research, after all, isn’t a profit-making venture.
But other countries, Valdivia said, are boosting their funding of scientific research and development.
Too often, politicians want to toss expenses such as NIH research to private industry, believing that a private drug firm, for example, could fund research if it believed that such research might lead to a profit-making drug of some kind.
“But,” Valdivia said, “there’s a space there of very basic research that industry will never be able to pick up ... that’s seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Often, we can’t anticipate what the applications will be.”
The NIH has conducted a noble mission and one that has produced benefits with worldwide impact. But it now appears to be pulling uphill when it comes to getting congressional support. That’s why Valdivia and others in academic research have to conduct an intense campaign, on a fairly regular basis, to ensure that support for research will continue.
In fact, the NIH justifies its mission every day, in thousands of laboratories all around the United States. The only question about its funding should be, “How much more can we give?”