President Obama has proposed a budget for the US government for 2015. I have previously criticized the federal government’s declining funding for the National Institutes of Health. Recent years have seen 5% decreases in federal funding for health research. Reducing our investment in medical science is unwise, because we face significant health risks and because historically, health research has paid for itself many times over in the value of improved longevity and quality of life.
So, what is the funding for health research in Obama’s 2015 budget? It’s been reported that NIH funding will increase in 2015. Yes. By 0.2% in current dollars. Funding is down for the Institutes of Dental Research and Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease. Funding is constant for the Eye Institute, Child Health, Environmental Health, Aging, Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Disease, Deafness, Alcohol Abuse, Nursing, the Genome Institute, and Minority Health. There are small increases for the other Institutes and a significant bump for the National Library of Medicine, which is devoted to health information technology research.
However, the Federal Reserve expects 1.5% to 2.0% inflation in 2015. It’s reasonable to use 2.0%, because inflation is always higher in the medical sector, and that is where the NIH buys things. Factoring this in, funding will decline for the NIH as a whole and for every NIH Institute except the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences, and the National Library of Medicine.
This decline is consistent with what was agreed to by Senator Murray and Representative Ryan in their budget deal, which averted the disastrous consequences of the sequester for health research. Cutting health research is nevertheless short-sighted.
For the sake of argument. let’s suppose that there was nothing else in the budget that could be cut and no additional revenue that could be raised. So spending more on medical research just adds to the debt that must be paid by us and our children. It’s still a good deal — particularly for those children. As Harvey Fineberg explains, our children will gain improved longevity and quality of life, the value of which will likely greatly exceed the cost of financing today’s research.
While the United States must come to grips with its crushing debt burden, and the costs of health care are no small part of the problem, mindless reductions in scientific research are not a sensible part of the solution. The monies spent on delivering health care should not be confused with investments in research to improve health. The next generation bears the burden of today’s debt, yet the next generation also stands to be the beneficiaries of today’s research investments. If there is any area of government expenditure that passes a moral test of justified borrowing from the future to finance work today, it is scientific research.
We should be growing medical science by investing in research. Instead, we continue to shrink the federal research enterprise. So Obama’s 2015 budget is still a disaster, just a smaller one.