US Biomedical Research Funding on the Wane

Laurie Barclay, MD

January 12, 2010

January 12, 2010 — The rate of funding for biomedical research has slowed and even decreased in recent years, according to the results of a study reported in the January 13 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"With the exception of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, funding support for biomedical research in the United States has slowed after a decade of doubling," write E. Ray Dorsey, MD, MBA, from University of Rochester Medical Center in New York, and colleagues. "While the promise of new drugs for refractory common or devastating diseases continues to capture the public's imagination and enjoys strong support, policy makers are also aware that new beneficial technology often spawns new cost. Consequently, timely and accurate information about the sources of public and private research funds is important."

The study goal was to quantify funding of biomedical research in the United States from 2003 to 2008, using publicly available data on funding from government (federal, state, and local), private, and industry sources. Financial trends between 1994 to 2003 and 2003 to 2007 were compared using regression models. The investigators also assessed numbers of new drug and device approvals by the US Food and Drug Administration during the same period.

Funding for biomedical research increased from $75.5 billion in 2003 to $101.1 billion in 2007. Total funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and industry in 2008 was $88.8 billion, whereas 2007 funding from these sources was $90.2 billion, after adjustment for inflation.

From 2003 to 2007, funding (adjusted for inflation) increased by 14%, yielding a compound annual growth rate of 3.4%. In contrast, funding increased at an annual rate of 7.8% from 1994 to 2003 (P < .001).

Industry was the largest source of funding in 2007, accounting for 58% of the total, followed by the federal government, which accounted for 33%. Despite a modest increase in funding, there was no corresponding increase in US Food and Drug Administration approvals for drugs or devices. Of the total US health expenditures in 2007, an estimated 4.5% was spent on biomedical research, and 0.1% was spent on health services research.

After adjustment for inflation, NIH funding decreased by 8.6% from 2003 to 2007, and total federal funding increased by 0.7%. In contrast, total federal funding increased by nearly 100% from 1994 to 2003 after adjusting for inflation. Funding from pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and medical device companies increased by 25% from 2003 to 2007, when adjusted for inflation.

"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 [NIH] and industry appears to have decreased by 2% in 2008," the study authors write.

"The rate and cyclic nature of sponsorship affects researchers and institutions, because it influences career choice, selection of projects, building of laboratories, and establishment of new programs," the authors point out. "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."

Limitations of this study include reliance on disparate sources that may not be directly comparable to quantify total funding across all major sponsors, as well as likely conservative estimates of biomedical research funding because the data do not capture all sources and are not exhaustive.

In an accompanying editorial, Thomas F. Boat, MD, from the Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center and the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine in Ohio, notes that these findings "make a strong case for more consistent, coordinated, data-driven, and sustainable decisions regarding biomedical research funding."

"National research policy should address not only funding of adequate, stable, and productive biomedical research but also adequate funding of research that addresses interventions designed to improve the delivery of a broad range of health services at an affordable cost," Dr. Boat writes.

"New drugs, biologics, and devices are needed to prevent and alleviate disease-related morbidity and extend the productive lives of individuals having a multitude of disorders for which there is no effective treatment," Dr. Boat stressed. "Productivity of research aimed at improving these outcomes deserves ongoing emphasis. Balancing funding for investigative efforts across the entire spectrum of health care needs also deserves the highest level of attention."

The National Center for Research Resources, a component of the NIH, and the NIH Roadmap for Medical Research supported this study. Some of the study authors report various financial relationships with Amarin, Medivation, the NIH, the American Parkinson Disease Association, CHDI Foundation Inc, the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, the National Parkinson Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the American Academy of Neurology, Avid Radiopharmaceuticals Inc, Lundbeck Inc, Medtronic Inc, Merck & Co Inc, Guidant Corporation, Alerion Institute, Alerion Advisors, and/or the Boston Consulting Group. Dr. Boat has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

JAMA. 2010;303:170-171, 137-143.

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