The PJ Tatler

Study: Not Much Return on Forced Taxpayer Investment in Biomedical Science

If you have any doubt that federally funded biomedical research is not giving you a good return on your forced tax dollar investment, a new study will set you straight.

The study, conducted by microbiologist Arturo Casadevall and M.D./Ph.D. student Anthony Bowen, shows that while the “industry” is growing, the deliverables are not.  To quote the Washington Post, “As the nation’s investment in the science that underlies new therapies has increased over the past half century, the output that we actually care about most — advances in health — appears to be slipping.”


“The goal of the roughly $30 billion spent by the National Institutes of Health each year isn’t merely to provide jobs for scientists and create reams of erudite scientific papers, but to help people live longer and better,” but the analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “raises far more questions than it answers and may in fact reveal how little we know about how to measure the bang for our buck when it comes to funding the insights and innovations that improve health.”

I’ve written about the issue numerous times before, whether it was to chide big-government conservatives like Newt Gingrich or Republican congressmen, or to point out how federal animal research labs are conducting ridiculous experiments and accidentally killing their animal subjects. This is a big fiscal deal because the budget for the National Institutes of Health is astronomical at $30 billion a year.

“I remember wondering if the pace of innovation from 1950 to 1980, when we only knew a certain amount [about biology], had been faster than the pace of innovation between 1980 and 2010,” said Arturo Casadevall, chair of the department of molecular microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “Thinking of all the things that were found between 1950 and 1980: blood pressure medicines, antibiotics, heart transplants… and that had been learned with only a very limited amount of knowledge compared to what we know now. And I kept thinking, could things be slowing?”

Some of the findings in the study show that “funding increased four-fold since 1965, but the number of drugs only doubled.”

The director of the NIH, Francis Collins, said “NIH agrees that it is critical to assess whether progress in biomedical research is achieving its ultimately desired outcome –  better health for the nation and the world. That is, however, a challenging task, and previous published economic analyses of the return on investment for NIH-supported research have led to radically different conclusions.”

Let’s start with an audit of the NIH. Why should taxpayers be denied accountability from their government merely because it’s “challenging”?

But here’s the real key to why we have people, or rather scientists, defending the amount of money spent on biomedical research at the NIH. “Calls for an expansion in funding for biomedical research have become pervasive as scientists find their livelihoods threatened by years of flat funding from the federal government, and they passionately argue that funding cuts will ultimately stall advances in medicine.”

The question of whether or not the investment in biomedical research is generating a return is not a problem in private industry. Private industry has to be accountable to shareholders and investors, solong-term waste doesn’t work in a company’s interests. Not so for the government.

At least one scientist has his head on straight. “I think where we need to start is here,” said Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University. “We’re still in the grip of this silly belief if you pour more money into knowledge creation, you’ll get more benefit. Let’s have a conversation about the kinds of institutions we really need.”

We are facing a budget battle when Congress returns in September. The time has come to force our representatives to be responsible stewards of our money.