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  • Setbacks for Medical Research

    For the first time in three decades, federal funding for the National Institutes of Health was cut this year. The reduction, which followed two years of level funding, not only imperils the development of lifesaving scientific breakthroughs but also has a detrimental impact on regional economies that are dependent on innovation — and New England is at the forefront.

    In numerous areas of scientific advancement, researchers are on the verge of discoveries that will improve health and save lives. But the reduction in federal support could cripple that progress and prompt economic setbacks that have a ripple effect on other industries. That is why Congress should support a 5% increase in NIH funding, which would allow research and development efforts at least to keep pace with inflation and permit some growth to capitalize on the unprecedented scientific opportunities spawned by past federal investments in research.

    NIH is the principal federal source of funding for medical research. More than 80% of its funding is awarded through its extramural research program, which supports nearly 50,000 competitive grants at more than 2,800 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions across the country.

    With some of the most prestigious research universities and hospitals in the world, New England is a major NIH beneficiary and is at the forefront of medical research. Four New England states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Vermont — score among the top 10 nationally for per-person monetary value of NIH awards received.

    From 1998 to 2003, federal investment in NIH doubled, with 15% increases each year. While budget realities make such continued growth unrealistic, NIH funding has been losing ground to inflation for two years, and researchers are already feeling the impact. The number of research project grants has declined each of the last three years, the amount of an average research grant has declined 2%, and grant approvals have declined 19%. Level funding already has forced New England institutions to trim their research programs — setting back research efforts and cutting jobs.

    Consider some of the work that NIH funding has supported:
    •The mapping of the human genome was a major advance driving the future of medicine — from predicting risk to preventing illness. Researchers from the Whitehead Institute/ MIT Center for Genome Research, now part of the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT in Massachusetts, contributed about half of the 3 billion letters of the human genome sequence to free public databases.
    •At Yale University School of Medicine in Connecticut, researchers recently developed new diagnostic tests for patients at risk for heart failure and new drug treatment strategies for patients who have suffered it.
    •At the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Massachusetts, a research team in 2004 discovered that a vaccine can help a patient’s immune system fight advanced melanoma.
    •At Dartmouth Medical School in New Hampshire, researchers recently made progress toward finding a vaccine to prevent ovarian cancer.

    NIH funding is also an important part of federal research and development funding, and as such is a major catalyst for New England’s innovation sector. The region performs about 8% of the nation’s total research and development.

    New England has become a magnet for students and researchers as well as those seeking to bring ideas to market, giving the six-state area a competitive advantage. The funding cutbacks threaten the viability of the next generation of researchers, many of whom begin their careers in this area, and often remain here.

    It’s important to send a clear message to congressional leaders: Don’t let the light dim on this crucial creative community by undermining its resources. Our quality of life is at stake.-

    James T. Brett is president and chief executive officer of The New England Council, the nation’s oldest regional business organization.

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