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TRENDSPOTTER: In Changing Times NIH, NSF Look Outdated

THE NATIONAL Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation have long been crown jewels of our nation’s biomedical research effort. Since their establishment – the NIH in the waning days of World War II and the NSF during the dawn of the Cold War – both institutions have been a source of imagination, leadership, and funding for the very basic research conducted by scientists within government labs and throughout universities across America.

Thousands of researchers have received federal support for their efforts over the years and the NIH in particular has provided an incubator for researchers and scientists who have gone on to become leaders in their respective fields, particularly in the area of understanding the mechanisms of disease. Without NIH funding it can truly be said that the basic research necessary to understanding the underlying process of diseases would be incomplete.  

But times change. And many of the recent changes are due in large part to previous investments NIH and NSF have made in America’s biomedical research infrastructure. A better understanding of how disease works at the molecular level combined with the power of computational processing has made basic research a critical part of the drug discovery process. Where once it would have taken decades between the discovery of how a disease unfolds and the development of a drug, the time between the two is now shrinking rapidly.

Unfortunately, the NIH and NSF have found themselves left behind in this brave new world. Indeed, in recent years, many of the NIH’s best and brightest researchers and institute leaders have left for private industry or academia (with the opportunity to work with private companies) where the budgets are bigger and the chance awaits to pursue cutting edge research that translates into tangible products. And as genomics turns from the business of mapping into explaining and consulting on drug development, the very concept of basic research that defined the NIH and NSF mission may fall away altogether.  

The fact is the commercialization of science – capitalism if you will – is now the primary intellectual and financial source for most biomedical research in the world. Celera’s completion of the map of the mouse genome, coming on the heels of its sequencing of the human genome, both months ahead of the public efforts, underscores this shift. There has been a lot of grumbling over the fact that Celera is treating the mouse map as intellectual property. But the fact that private companies, which spend some $30 billion a year on biomedical research – three times as much as spent by NIH – want a piece of the action does not mean that medical research is stifled. On the contrary, the Celera model is another path towards progress.

Unlike the public projects, Celera is using its proprietary data not only to generate revenue but to raise capital in the private markets in order to be able to finance its future moves into proteomics and diagnostics. I maintain that this method of funding biomedical research – with the emphasis on drug discovery and the commercialization of genomic information – is not only an inevitable outgrowth of the transformation of the research enterprise, it is critical to capitalizing on the vast number of scientific opportunities that await.

All this begs the question of whether the traditional stance of the scientific community towards the NIH and NSF – on bended knee with hands stretched out and palms open – is serving the cause of medical progress well. Everyone wants their particular project and institute to do well in the budgetary process. But I wonder if the time spent on lobbying and name calling would be better used to encourage a process of rethinking spending in light of the significant changes in the way medical research and drug discovery is now conducted. Specifically, NIH is no longer the trendsetter. Rather, it is part of a virtual partnership between private industry, academia, venture capitalists, and non-profit disease organizations that have their own research programs.  Hence, the legislative goal for NIH should not be more and more funding for funding’s sake without direction or regard for the Celera model of investment.  

Instead, the government should seek to make the NIH a protectorate for medical innovation, encouraging the patenting of good ideas, the movement of bright researchers into the private sector, the establishment of clear challenges for the improvement of medical care. It is an approach that too few are willing to consider in the pursuit of federal dollars, a pursuit that is increasingly irrelevant to the goal of taking genomic knowledge and developing a new generation of medical miracles.

Robert Goldberg is a senior fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis and a senior research fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.   You can e-mail him at [email protected] .

Trendspotter is a weekly column that focuses on how trends in politics, patent law, and the US and European markets will affect the genomics industry. The column appears every Friday. Next week Gunnar Weikert, founder and CEO of Inventage, a venture capital fund based in Dusseldorf, Germany, will talk about the European market.  

To access previous columns just enter the word "Trendspotter" in the archive search window on the homepage.      

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