The 2015 Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act made international headlines and was acclaimed by many American scientists. The permanent “R&D” tax credit is among the bill’s more popular provisions. The Union Of Concerned Scientists expressed relief “that this omnibus funding bill was not loaded with unnecessary and divisive policy riders.”

The spending package, which allocated $2B to the NIH alone, appeared to reverse the trend of insufficient funding that has stalled research since 2009 stimulus package appropriations were expended. Some scientists caution that although the bill is an important first step, those concerned about the future of scientific research should continue to call for adequate funding.

What impact will the increase have on scientific research?

When adjusted for inflation, budgets for some agencies have actually declined. "NIH funding fell by 11.4 percent from fiscal year 2003 to 2010 and by another 12.1 percent by fiscal year 2013, numbers that are adjusted for the rising costs of conducting research. The fact of the matter is that reductions in the NIH budget don’t simply impact research in the current year. They irreversibly reduce the number of biomedical scientists and thereby the pace of discovery.”

Insufficient funding for scientific research could result in long-term, devastating effects on scientific discovery in critical fields, such as healthcare. We’re also experiencing a ‘brain drain’: “When scientists have less or no funding to conduct research, their ability to mentor a trainee is proportionally reduced (the average cost of training a Ph.D. student is $200,000-$300,000).

By 2013, 53 percent of biomedical researchers indicated that they had to turn away promising young potential trainees.” "Today less than 60 percent of biomedical Ph.D. graduates work in an area closely related to their training, according to a 2008 study by the NIH. The rate of this exodus is most severe for the most recent graduates.”

Global impact on scientific advancement

“NIH is the largest funder of biomedical research in the world.” However, its purchasing power has declined by 22% over the past 13 years.” The spending authorization is an important first step toward remediating the decline of NIH-funded scientific advancement.

Advocacy groups such as the FASEB organized letter-writing campaigns and other lobbying efforts to persuade Congress to restore funding to leading federal institutions such as NIH, NASA, EPA and FDA.

A study commissioned by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which examined the period between 2004 and 2012, reports that Asian countries “increased their global investment by 7 percent.”

The Scientific Community Responds

Groups such as the American Institute of Biological Sciences have urged the U.S. Congress to “build upon the bipartisan commitment already evident in FY 2016 appropriations bills, and enact legislation that provides real growth for federal investments in research and development across the board.” AIBS, which represents over 500 member coalitions, is calling for an increase of 5.2% in FY 2016 spending on scientific research.

Next Steps

The good news is that funding is only part of the answer: a shift in priorities could help reverse the damage to scientific discovery. JAMA’s analysis of (2004-2012) spending levels for research in some diseases (cancer and HIV/AIDS) were greater “than the predicted burden associated with these diseases.” Hamilton Moses, a co-author of the study, stated that other diseases (“autism, depression, Alzheimer’s, Type 2 diabetes”) have a greater impact but are relatively underfunded.

NIH has partnered with E.U. organizations to conduct research under formal and informal agreements.

According to recent polls in the U.S., nearly two-thirds of the public still consider government-funded research as “essential for scientific progress… .” Dr. Alan I. Leshner, Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, advocates that scientists and non-scientists engage in “respectful bidirectional communication, where scientists truly listen, as well as speak, to the public.” Once that occurs, lawmakers will perhaps be more easily persuaded that sustainable investment in scientific advancement is sound public policy.

Any coalition of scientists and citizens must first agree on establishing research priorities. The JAMA study findings may help form the agenda for future lobbying initiatives. The White House Office Of Science And Technology Policy “encourages Federal agencies to consider incorporating citizen science and crowdsourcing into their programs, as appropriate.” Citizen scientists help reduce the cost of research by performing duties such as data collection and monitoring. OSTP director John Holdren announced that federal agencies will have until January 30, 2016 to contribute to the General Services Administration’s list of projects in need of citizen volunteers.

Those who are interested in learning more about ongoing efforts to adequately fund federal agencies should visit the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology site to register for its Washington Update; learn about Federal Science Budget information; or read material on the Benefits of Biomedical Research.