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Pols, Scientists Discuss Future Research Funding

Mark Schreiner
WUSF 89.7 News

It may be an understatement, but biomedical research is a big business.

The National Institutes of Health has an annual budget of around $30 billion, and since it provides most of the federal funding for research at universities and laboratories, it supports over 400,000 jobs across the country.

Here in the Sunshine State, biomedical research’s presence is just as great. According to U. S. Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Tampa), Florida received over 1,000 NIH-funded grants totaling about $450 million in fiscal 2013, and every dollar invested from the NIH grant in the state of Florida generates $2.21 in state business activity.

However, she adds that federal funding to the NIH hasn’t kept pace with inflation for over a decade, while the organization’s budget has also been slashed 11 percent over the last 2 years.

"In my opinion, we’re just treading water at best because another round of sequester cuts loom in fiscal year 2016," Castor says. "This is a scary proposition for a community that has lifted itself up as one of the health innovation capitals in the United States."

That community includes the University of South Florida, which ranked 43rd among U-S universities in the National Science Foundation's rankings of higher education research spending, and the Moffitt Cancer Center (an underwriter for University Beat), which received almost 47 million in federal research funding last year.

Castor, along with fellow Representatives Dennis Ross (R-Lakeland) and David Jolly (R-Indian Rocks Beach), recently sat down with representatives from USF and Moffitt to discuss how to address those challenges and make the most of the money still available.

For Moffitt center director, Dr. Thomas Sellers, it was the chance to repeat a message he relayed earlier this month to the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.

"The best science is not being funded – patients are dying at the rate of one every minute of every day in this country," told the panelists. "That’s unacceptable, we need to do something about that, so we need the investment (in research)."

And the partisan bickering of D.C. bothers Dr. Charles Lockwood, the newly named senior vice president for USF Health and dean of the Morsani College of Medicine.

"There is a sentiment in support of NIH funding, but it’s being caught up in the ideological battles that are occurring in Washington," Lockwood said. "I think we’ve got to change the dialogue of that discussion away from the NIH funding being an entitlement and somehow being almost a form of financial support for universities that isn’t tied to an actual outcome to an investment, a wonderful investment."

"The internal rate of return for every dollar of NIH spending is 37 percent," Lockwood added. "If you had a pension, you would invest every cent you had in NIH funding because the return is outstanding."

Congressman Jolly pointed out that it’s going to take a concerted effort to convince his fiscally conservative colleagues that more money is the answer. He suggested that the best arguments lie in the results of the research.

"We need to begin framing, or continue to frame, the conversation about investment in basic and applied research in terms of the cost savings that it creates for long-term care costs, because we know that’s the case and we can make an economic argument for that," he said.

Ross pointed to Florida’s strength in biomedical research along the High-Tech Corridor of Tampa to Orlando to the Space Coast as a possible launching point for other industries, similar to how NASA’s expansion in the 1960’s helped boost businesses around the state.

"The spin-offs that came from the technology, from the engineering and from the advancements there catapulted us throughout the world as being the number one engineering, science power out there," he said.

The lawmakers also heard from researchers themselves - the people on the 'front lines' whose work could disappear with the swipe of a pen.

"Unless personal stories and personal approaches to this research gets heard by Congress and our state representatives, they won’t appreciate it as much," said Dr. Paul Sanberg, USF’s Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation. "I believe that if you get it into their memory, if you get it into their abilities to go out and say, ‘Hey, I heard about this, I’m going to do something about it,’ that what it’s all about."

And progress is being made – slowly. Congresswoman Castor has announced she’s going to submit a bill for consideration that would move NIH funding from a discretionary fund to a mandatory one that won't be affected by sequestration.

“It's kind of an innovative idea that would help us compete with China, that has doubled their research dollars and other countries around the world," she said, adding, "We've got to keep America number one when it comes to medical research and health innovation."

Mark Schreiner is the assistant news director and intern coordinator for WUSF News.
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