STEM research & Obama's budget proposal

STEM research and Obama 2016 budget proposalYesterday, I wrote about new data showing that medical research funding has not increased significantly since 2004. Because of the ever-rising cost of research, flat funding levels are worrisome--because of this funding plateau, we may not have the advanced treatments that could save or improve lives available to us as our population ages. Moreover, the United States is on its way to being surpassed in innovation by other countries funding research more vigorously. The Pew Research Center for Internet, Science, and Techonology released a report late last week examining the beliefs the public and scientists hold about STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) research. Using representative samples of the public and of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Pew delved into the nitty-gritty of individuals’ attitudes about science and its role in society. Especially for public funding, these views are important to consider because government funding options are influenced by voters and the political environment. (The report is rich and full of fascinating statistics, most of which I won’t be able to address here, so I recommend reading it in full at your leisure.)

Public perception of research funding

Just over 70% of Americans believe that government investment in engineering, technology, and basic science research will pay off eventually. About one-quarter say that the outcomes are not worth the investment. However, only 61% of the public supports government investment in STEM research. Over one-third have faith that private investment alone will be enough to progress STEM.

There seems to be little difference between Republicans (and right-leaning independents) and Democrats (and left-leaning independents) in beliefs about the importance of STEM research. Younger people tend to value investing in research more than Americans over age 65.

Scientists’ perception of research funding

About half of scientists surveyed believe that this is a good time for STEM, a notable decrease from 76% in 2009. Scientists are slightly more positive about their own fields, however, with 62% saying that now is a good time for their specialty.

The negative perceptions may be influenced by attitudes surrounding the funding process. More than eight out of ten scientists assert that obtaining federal research dollars is more difficult today than it was in 2009. Nearly half report that getting funding from industry and foundations is also more difficult. And scientists are in nearly total agreement (88%) that lack of funding is a serious problem for the ability to conduct high quality research.

Obama’s budget proposal for 2016

If most Americans believe that funneling money into STEM research is an important investment, why do most scientists feel that federal funding is difficult to obtain? President Obama released his budget proposal--let’s see what it has to say about funding research.

This table highlights just a few key areas relevant to STEM research funding and compares their proposed funding to the funding of other, unrelated program areas in the budget. Rows with red text represent STEM research funding.

Funding Area Proposed budget allocation
Special education $12.5 billion
Science and research laboratories $12.8 billion
NASA $18.1 billion
Health research and food safety $37.5 billion
Veterans health care $66.7 billion
Medicare $589.7 billion
National defense (including personnel, operations, equipment, and supplies) $615.5 billion
Social Security $944.3 billion

STEM research is funded at a much lower rate than the budget behemoths Medicare, Defense, and Social Security. One could argue that if we didn’t need or want to spend so much money on these areas, we would be able to fund more research. However, in the case of Social Security and Medicare, the United States has made a commitment to its citizens to provide health care for selected populations and financial support to those who have earned it. These costs are somewhat non-negotiable.

Political cartoon Obama budget

Whether these funding levels are sufficient for STEM research is not something on which I can meaningfully comment. But if researchers feel like they aren’t being funded well enough, and the American public values STEM investment, I have to wonder whether the United States is providing funding on the levels that the American public would prefer.

Without developing new technologies and advancing our understanding of medical science, we will soon be less innovative than other countries and will not produce the health breakthroughs we so desperately need. If we aren’t properly funding this research, we are the ones who will suffer.

Note: My views do not represent the views of any person or any entity associated with the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the United States government, or anything else. These ramblings are mine and mine alone.

Medical research funding is stagnant

A few weeks ago, an article was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association comparing the United States’ medical research funding to that of other countries. Looking across all sources of funding--pharmaceutical/biotech/medical device companies, foundations and charities, all levels of government, NIH grants, and various private funders--the article authors found that there was a significant increase in funding between 1994 and 2004, but that the increase tapered off between 2004 and 2012. This graph shows a large increase in medical research spending 1994-2004 and illustrates virtually level funding in the past decade.

Though it’s always easy to blame the government of all of our problems, and all levels of government increased their research budgets by just a pittance, the overall leveling off isn’t just due to decreased government spending. Biotech and medical device companies have only increased their spending a tiny bit since 2004. Shockingly, the pharmaceutical industry has slightly reduced its investment in research in that time period.

This isn’t great. Considering the United States has some pretty big health issues to address, I would have hoped to see increasing investment rather than the flat levels of the past ten years. Since the cost of research goes up each year as the questions researchers ask and the technology they use becomes more sophisticated, funding should also rise. And since it can take 25 years or longer for new technology to become clinically useful, we will see the effects as many of us age and need advanced medical interventions.

The authors conclude (bold emphasis is mine):

Clearly, the pace of scientific discovery and need for service improvement have outstripped the capacity of current financial and organizational models to support the opportunities afforded. The analysis underscores the need for the United States to find new sources to support medical research, if the clinical value of its past science investment and opportunities to improve care are to be fully realized. Substantial new private resources are feasible, though public funding can play a greater role. Both will require nontraditional approaches if they are to be politically and economically realistic. Given global trends, the United States will relinquish its historical innovation lead in the next decade unless such measures are undertaken.

So successfully increasing medical research spending will all come down to how much the public believes that (1) the research is crucial and (2) if the United States doesn’t invest more money, it will lose its place as the most innovative country. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about the new Pew report “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society,” which addresses this very issue.

Source: Moses, H., Matheson, D.H.M., Cairns-Smith, S., George, B.P., Palisch, C., and Dorsey, E.R. The anatomy of medical research: US and international comparisons. JAMA. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.15939

Note: My views do not represent the views of any person or any entity associated with the National Cancer Institute, the National Institutes of Health, the United States government, or anything else. These ramblings are mine and mine alone.