Michael Avgerinos, Staff Writer
One of the few areas upon which both parties in Congress agree is the need for cutting-edge biomedical research, yet last month’s budget agreement subjects the National Institutes of Health (NIH) allocation to congressional horse-trading behind closed doors. October’s budget deal lifts defense and non-defense spending by $25 billion each in 2016 and $15 billion each in 2017. Politicians note that defense and non-defense spending increases are equal, but that ignores an additional $73.7 billion in each of the next two years that some call a slush fund known as the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. Of this additional amount, defense spending must account for “not less than” $58.7 billion in each of the next two years. The agreement gives the Pentagon just $5 billion less than the $612 billion that fully funds defense for 2016.
It is critical that the NIH have a stable funding budget to attract and retain the best scientific minds to find cures for devastating diseases, however the NIH budget is nowhere close to being fully funded to meet the country’s needs. Part of the problem is a static congressional budgeting approach that fails to account for the benefits of future cost savings from innovative treatments or cures for diseases. Such future cost savings can and should have an enormous impact on budget calculations. For example, the NIH’s $405.8 million Alzheimer’s research budget pales in comparison to the cost of Alzheimer’s Disease, which is more than $203 billion annually. Without a cure, the annual cost will surge to $1.2 trillion by 2050 as the baby boomer generation ages. Currently 5.4 million people in the US and more than 44 million people worldwide have Alzheimer’s and dementia. Health care costs for treating dementia are already greater than costs for cancer or heart disease.
NIH has identified a protein called tau that causes neurons to die and brain cells to shrink, so developing a way to block tau could stop Alzheimer’s in its tracks. The research and development that could turn this discovery into potential cures, however, requires adequate funding. Unfortunately, NIH is still recovering from its $1.55 billion budget cut owing to congressional sequestration in 2013. In 2014, the NIH awarded 12.5% fewer grants than in 2003, and many research scientists left the industry.
A logical solution is for Congress to dynamically score its investment in biomedical research, taking into account the long-run savings from reducing economic cost through disease prevention. House Republicans adopted a resolution directing the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to use dynamic scoring wherever possible in its cost estimates of federal legislation, which should apply to NIH research.
Members of the Senate Committee on Appropriations from both parties recognize that health care costs of our aging society can threaten our nation’s financial future, which should make it easier for Congress to dynamically score the returns on investment in NIH research. Senator Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) called Alzheimer’s “the defining disease of our generation,” noting that even delaying onset of Alzheimer’s by five years could result in total savings of $447 billion by 2050. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) told NIH Director Francis Collins, “When you think about the jobs that are created because of [the NIH] in pharmaceuticals, biomedicals, medical devices, you are a turbo engine…So rather than seeing you as a cost factor, we should see you as an economic generator.”
Members of Congress from both political parties clearly understand the importance of NIH research, but if they cannot agree on how to allocate the budget by December 11, there will be no increase in NIH funding for 2016. Since 2003, valuable NIH research has been stalled due to the vicissitudes of congressional budget machinations. It’s time to make NIH funding permanent.
Michael Avgerinos is a senior at NYU College of Arts and Science where he is majoring in environmental studies science track with minors in chemistry, child and adolescent mental health, and public health. He is particularly interested in the effects of the environment on children’s health. He spent last summer in the Amgen Scholars program at NIH Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development where he researched T-cell development.