Private donors step up to save medical research
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
In his State of the Union address, President Obama announced his support for precision medicine, an exciting new field that combines genomics and digital data to target treatments for diseases. The short announcement, which was followed up by a subsequent press conference, reverberated among medical researchers, who are hoping that the remarks signal a reversal of years of devastating cuts to medical research budgets.
While this initiative may portend a new era of exciting investigation, the question remains whether it is too little too late. Universities are the nation’s biomedical research powerhouses. But for the past decade they have been in a fiscal vise that has cinched tighter with every passing year.
As the dean of a medical school with a strong focus on research, I have experienced firsthand how harmful these cuts can be, especially when young scientists are forced out of the field and no longer driving our country’s spirit of innovation. The hand at the vise is the federal government, which also provides the majority of money for research through such agencies as the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Over the past decade, federal support for biomedical research has declined by an alarming 25 percent in real dollars, with the NIH approving half as many proposals as before.
Grants from sources such as the NIH do not come free and clear. What a grant does not cover, a university must provide, including the various aspects of what it takes to establish and fund a research lab. This can include salaries and benefits, administrative costs, as well as funding for researchers before they win their own grant money. This costsharing arrangement may have sufficed in the past, but no more.
The costs of conducting research have increased over time, but the proportion of the federal government’s contribution has fallen. And it is the universities that make up the shortfall. Citing data from the National Science Foundation, Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, says U.S. universities spend $12 billion of their own funds in support of research and development, double what they spent 12 years ago. Their share of the support for research rose from 8.7 percent in 1962 to 19.4 percent in 2012, Daniels wrote in a recent article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. ‘Cashstrapped universities might be led to make choices that are short of ideal for science policy or the biomedical workforce,’ he wrote.
Behind those measured words is a stark reality for today’s researchers: young scientists waiting too long in the wings while attempting to win grants, established investigators struggling to retain grant money for ongoing research, and the loss to academia of all those who give up and take their talents elsewhere. When these researchers are blocked or driven from research, so go the innovations and discoveries they would have made, and this includes the promises of genomebased therapies President Obama so rightly values.
It is in this dire scenario that private donors are now playing a crucial role. As biomedical research centers receive ever fewer federal dollars, philanthropy is helping bridge the gap, with wealthy donors bankrolling some of the nation’s top research centers. In an article published last year in Academic Medicine, a journal of the Association of American Medical Colleges, the authors point out that 22 of the 141 accredited U.S. medical schools are named after donors, representing a major increase since 2008. These benefactors ‘have the potential to positively affect all stakeholders by improving the resources that are available for research, teaching, and clinical care,’ they wrote.
At Weill Cornell Medical College, which was renamed in 1998 to recognize a first major gift of $100 million from Joan and Sandy Weill and their leadership in guiding the institution, we have firsthand experience with donors stepping in to supplement funding provided by the federal government. More recently, Weill Cornell announced a $25 million gift from Gale and Ira Drukier to establish a premier, crossdisciplinary institute dedicated to understanding the underlying causes of diseases that can be especially devastating to children and adolescents. These include asthma, autism, cancer, cardiovascular disease, infectious diseases and diseases of the mind. The institute’s goal will be to do what federal dollars are no longer doing enough of: it will allow top scientists to conduct groundbreaking research that will lead to advanced therapies.
President Obama could have been talking about donors like the Drukiers in his address to Congress when he praised ‘the good, and optimistic, and bighearted generosity of the American people who, every day, live the idea that we are our brother’s keeper, and our sister’s keeper.’
These generous keepers deserve his praise, but it’s time the federal government joined them in fully funding the discoveries that will benefit all Americans.