U.S. medical research funding falls: analysis

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Public and private funding for U.S. biological and medical research has slowed and resources from one major federal source shrank when inflation is taken into account, researchers reported Tuesday.

Micro biologist Ayesha Khan works on research in a lab at the County of San Diego Health and Human Services in San Diego, California April 26, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Blake

They said their findings suggest a more cautious future for medical research, and one in which new scientists shy away from risky undertakings that could deliver breakthroughs, in favor of safer but less exciting approaches.

Industry was the largest contributor to biomedical research, accounting for 58 percent of all 2007 spending, the team at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York found.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health was the second-largest source, paying for 27 percent, they reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But funding fell in real terms.

“After a decade of doubling, the rate of increase in biomedical research funding slowed from 2003 to 2007, and after adjustment for inflation, the absolute level of funding from the National Institutes of Health and industry appears to have decreased by 2 percent in 2008,” the report reads.

Rochester’s Dr. Ray Dorsey and colleagues looked at a variety of sources to calculate the total amount of public spending on biomedical research, mostly from the National Institutes of Health, and private sources like pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device firms.

They found total funding rose from $75.5 billion in 2003 to $101.1 billion in 2007, an increase of 14 percent when adjusted for inflation.

But it stalled the next year and could be hit hard by the global recession, they said.

Funding from NIH and private industry was $86.4 million in 2007 and $88.8 billion in 2008. But when the 2007 number is adjusted for inflation, this represents a 2 percent decrease, they said.

“Biomedical research captures the public’s imagination,” they added. It also leads to economic development, they said.

“Therefore, in the coming years, debate will likely increase between those who view technology as a source of additional cost and those who view it as a source of value. The research community should be mindful of how others view it and take aggressive steps to enhance its own productivity.”

And researchers may avoid risky experiments in a conservative environment, they said. “It makes them cautious and may portend a trend to favor incremental research rather than high-risk/high-reward avenues, which have particular value to refractory diseases and those of great clinical or public health impact,” they wrote.

The issue is not trivial, and is the subject of political debate. “In 2007, the United States spent an estimated 4.5 percent of its total health expenditures on biomedical research and 0.1 percent on health services research,” the researchers wrote.

In September, President Barack Obama announced a plan to spend $5 billion from the $787 billion economic stimulus package on medical and scientific research.