So why is more not being done?
That’s what scientists, patients and advocates are asking, but the answer is complicated.
The 2008 economic downturn had a negative effect on everyone’s funding, although science lagged behind other priorities and interests.
“The scientific organizations do not have the potent lobbies to persuade lawmakers,” said Gordon F. Tomaselli, MD, past president of the American Heart Association and director of the Division of Cardiology at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
“We spend 0.23 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on biomedical research. It’s not a low number; it’s an embarrassing number. That figure is dwarfed by other countries in Europe and Asia that are doing a much better job than us. It shows a dangerous lack of foresight in America because investing in research leads to innovation and ideas that get picked up by companies. It spurs the economy.”
The American Heart Association has invested more than $3.7 billion in cardiovascular disease research, including more than $100 million annually since 1996. In 2013, the AHA invested $121.6 million in research, the most since 2009. Only the federal government funds more.
The National Institutes of Health invests $30.1 billion annually in medical research, with more than 80 percent funding 50,000 competitive grants for more than 300,000 researchers.
But that money has been squeezed. Sequester — automatic budget cuts — went into effect this year, meaning an across-the-board 5.5 percent cut in NIH support. Those cuts come after about a decade of flat funding for the NIH. And the NIH’s purchasing power is reported to be 25 percent less than what it was a decade ago.
The ongoing dwindling of federal support deters young people from pursuing careers in science, stymying innovation. New drugs and medical devices developed in the past five to 10 years that better target disease with fewer side effects? That pipeline could slow down if stagnation continues, according to Tomaselli.
“The government doesn’t know much about science or how to fund science,” Tomaselli said. “Should the NIH fund large-population, epidemiological studies or should the emphasis shift to more investigator-initiated research? Why not restructure the process to make it more streamlined so that studies are designed to move ideas into product development, to answer questions that are important and relevant? We don’t have that right now.”
As part of the American Heart Association’s You’re the Cure campaign, in September, patients and advocates discussed the importance of increasing medical research funding and the impact it has had on their own lives with their state representatives and lawmakers in Washington, D.C.
Dr. Tomaselli believes patients can persuade politicians.
“Lawmakers are more likely to listen to their constituents than special-interest groups,” Tomaselli said. “We all need to be advocates for this. The most effective message is a grassroots message. Scientists are often reticent to leave their labs and get out there, but they could join patients and tell Congress that medical research is important to them personally and it’s important to us as a society.”