NIH funding level correlates with lower US mortality rates

thanks to Dave for pointing this out. It directly contradicts what the NCI believes, which is that more money has no impact on research progress. Our question to NCI in Dec 2008 was: 10. Can you provide a reference for your general statement "research dollars do not directly correlate to increased survivorship"? The NCI response referenced this article. Well, here's another way to look at it....

An analysis of funding at the National Institutes of Health shows t... Government spending and its role in the economy are once again major issues thanks to the financial market bailouts and President Obama's health care initiative. Government-funded scientific research has made an appearance in this debate, as work funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been called into question as wasteful and unnecessary. A paper published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences (PNAS) takes a look at these issues. Its authors show that increasing NIH funding decreased mortality rates in the US, and they go on to attempt to quantify the economic impact of lives extended by NIH research.

Within the general debate on government spending, federally funded scientific research has been a frequent target of criticism. NIH funding has gotten new levels of scrutiny because the NIH received $8.2 billion as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. For example, Fox News recently ran this hit piece critical review of NIH-funded condom studies. Even NPR's Marketplace questioned the stimulating effects of NIH funding, stating, "[I]n this kind of funding it's a little questionable as to how many jobs you're really creating, because what you're doing is giving money to university researchers who already have jobs at their universities." A rebuttal of this misinformed claim was later aired.

In an attempt to inform the debate, the PNAS article tracked mortality rates for cardiovascular disease (CVD), stroke, cancer, and diabetes, along with inflation-adjusted NIH funding. Mortality rates were compared to funding levels at organizations that are specifically tasked with addressing the disease in question, such as the National Cancer Institute. The primary finding was that mortality rates generally decline with increasing funding, but this drop comes at a ten- to fifteen-year lag behind funding cycles.

Both CVD and strokes show precipitous drops in mortality with increased funding, which seems to indicate that mortality rates decrease at an accelerating rate once a certain funding threshold is reached. There is some evidence of decreasing returns in the most recent data, as mortality rates have only modestly decreased with increasing funding in the past ten years.

Cancer mortality rates increased despite funding increases between 1950 and 1980, but a strong linear correlation between funding and decreasing mortality rates exists between 1998 and 2004. While the authors don't say this, cancer mortality versus funding trajectory may indicate that now could be an ideal time to increase cancer research funding at the expense of CVD and stroke funding, considering their diminishing returns on investment.

In the last twenty years, diabetes mortality rates show no correlation with NIH funding, but the authors stress that outside influences like increasing obesity rates and decreases in CVD and stroke mortality cloud the analysis. Diabetes mortality rates have increased in general, but they have decreased when normalized to diabetes diagnoses, so the research may be having some positive effects.

The single most impressive finding in the study is the correlation between age-adjusted death rates and NIH funding. A steady linear decrease in death rate with increasing NIH funding is found between 1954 and 1969 as well as from 1990 to 2004. In between, the news was even better: from 1969 to 1990 there was a dramatically larger decrease in death rate with increasing NIH funding, which can be attributed to the success of CVD and stroke research.

By considering the lives extended and the decline in disability rates that resulted from NIH research in these four areas, the authors estimate the economic impact of NIH funding to tax revenues. The total tax benefit is greater than $885 billion over ten years—not bad, considering the NIH budget would be only around $400 to $500 billion over those same ten years at current funding rates. If you consider the extra value of healthier workers to the gross domestic product, the benefit extends to more than $1.3 trillion. The analysis does not consider any economic impacts of the research itself (students and researchers with jobs, equipment and supply industries, etc.), so the benefits are even greater than presented in the article.

Despite recent criticisms, NIH funding appears to be effective in combating diseases. There can be endless debate about the economic estimates presented here, but the conclusion is clear—government investment in medical and scientific research is a net gain for the US and world economy.

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