From federal support, groundbreaking research

For Allon Klein, federal scientific research funding allowed him to build a microscale device to analyze single cells affected by disease, adding new precision to understanding how cancer causes things to go wrong in the human body.

For Shelly Greenfield, federal dollars meant being able to investigate and develop a new substance-use-disorder treatment program, filling a gap in women’s care amid a spreading opioid epidemic.

For Conor Walsh, government financial support meant being able to assemble large, interdisciplinary teams to develop soft, wearable robotics that can help those disabled by stroke and other conditions, and even boost the abilities of healthy people — such as soldiers — who work under challenging conditions.

The research of those and thousands of other investigators at institutions across the United States represents a rare spending priority valued by lawmakers of both parties, according to the chairman of a key House subcommittee. That’s why, when statutory spending caps were eased earlier this year, lawmakers looked to boost the bottom line for agencies that finance research into human health, engineering, energy, and other areas.

“In an era where we’re very divided, it’s nice to find an area where people will really work hard to see what we can do to make an investment here, [and ponder] what tough choices do we have to make elsewhere in the budget,” said U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who chairs the House Appropriations Committee’s subcommittee that oversees the budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), a major source of funds for life science and medical research. “It’s something that Democrats and Republicans like to work on together.”

In the most recent budget process, Cole worked closely with his congressional counterpart, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the NIH budget, to include a $3 billion, 8.8 percent increase for the agency. The hike is the third multibillion-dollar increase in as many years for the NIH, as Congress works to return the agency to funding levels not achieved since 2003. At that time, Congress had just completed a historic doubling of the NIH budget, but years of stagnating funding eroded purchasing power because of inflation.

“This was a pleasant surprise, actually shocking,” said Sarah Axelrod, assistant vice president and head of Harvard’s Office for Sponsored Programs (OSP), which oversees Harvard’s external research funding from both private and public sources. “That [NIH increase] for us is great news, considering 68 percent of our [research] money is coming from the NIH.”

The federal budget approved by Congress and signed by President Trump in March also includes increases for other agencies that fund university research, with the Defense Department getting additions of 7.3 percent for applied research, 4.7 percent for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and 2.9 percent for basic research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) received 4 percent more, while NASA’s science budget rose 7.9 percent, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy (ARPA-E), which funds high-risk, high-reward energy projects, received a 15.5 percent increase.

“The increase in federal research funds in this year’s budget is a welcome sign that the vital partnership between universities and the federal government is strong,” said Harvard President Drew Faust. “It is gratifying to see that Congress shares our conviction that federally funded research benefits the public in manifold ways. It drives economic growth as new inventions and discoveries are brought to market, improves health and well-being through advances in diagnostics and treatment, and opens new avenues of achievement by expanding knowledge and sparking discovery. No collaboration holds more promise for the people of this country.”

At Harvard, external research funding provides critical support for the University’s scientific enterprise, totaling about 18 percent of the University’s annual operating budget. Axelrod said that reliance on outside research money varies widely from School to School. Harvard Business School, for example, accepts no external funding, while outside support for faculty research makes up 68 percent of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s budget.

“It’s a huge range,” Axelrod said.

Last year, Harvard’s Office for Sponsored Programs tallied 3,388 active awards for Harvard faculty members, of which 58 percent were federal and 42 percent were from private sources. The federal grants tend to be larger, Axelrod said, resulting in federal research support significantly outstripping that from other sources, $613 million versus $255 million.

Harvard’s share of federal research dollars peaked at $639 million in 2013, the last year of an Obama-administration stimulus program designed to buoy the economy in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis. Funding subsequently declined or remained stagnant, followed by gradual increases over the past three years, Axelrod said. Even with those increases, however, Harvard’s federal research funding in 2017 remained below that 2013 peak, at $613 million.

Cole said Congress has generally looked at funding for the NIH and other research agencies more kindly than presidential administrations have, whether Republican or Democratic. Discussing his own motivation, Cole said he recognizes the potential of medical research to ease human suffering and also sees compelling economic reasons to support the nation’s robust scientific enterprise.

Not only does scientific research result in new technology, inventions, and devices that spark the economy — for example, 57 percent of drugs patented in the world are patented in this country, he said — medical advances can also reduce costs of care.

That’s critical in the case of ailments such as Alzheimer’s disease, which will become more prevalent in an aging nation, exacting both a rising human toll and skyrocketing medical costs.

“It’s a terrible disease, and I’m familiar with it — my dad had it — but it also costs us $259 billion a year in Medicaid,” Cole said. “It will literally bust the federal budget if we don’t figure out a way to at least slow the onset. If we can slow the onset for five years, it will cost 42 percent less.”

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