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Research funding doubles in decade

Public, private support for biomedical research tops $94 billion, shifts further down pipeline

By | September 22, 2005

Funding for biomedical research in the U.S. jumped from $37.1 billion in 1994 to $94.3 billion in 2003, a doubling of support when adjusted for inflation. Private industry provided 57% of this total and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) supplied 28%, according to a study published Tuesday (September 20) in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

"We were surprised to find that the total numbers are as large as they are," said lead author Hamilton Moses III, chairman of the Alerion Institute, North Garden, Va. "No one before had pieced together all of what industry had spent," he told The Scientist.

The study also validated previous reports that the emphasis of research is moving further down the pipeline, showing that a higher portion of funding is being dedicated to clinical studies. For instance, the percentage of research funding dedicated to clinical trials by industry increased from 28% in 1994 to 41% in 2003. National Institutes of Health funding for clinical research increased a smaller amount over the same time period, by only two percentage points.

The U.S. spends about 5.6% of its total health expenditures on biomedical research, more than any other country. Overall, Moses and his colleagues found that research funding at pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device industries more than doubled from $26.8 billion in 1994 to an inflation-adjusted $54.1 billion in 2003, both in 2003 dollars. Research support from private foundations, voluntary health organizations, and institutes increased 36% from $1.8 billion in 1994 to $2.5 billion in 2003, when adjusted for inflation.

Mary Woolley, president of Research!America, an organization that supports federal funding for research, told The Scientist that even a doubling of funding in the past decade is inadequate. "I would say that research, overall, is still significantly underfunded," she said. Woolley added that she was not disappointed to see government funding falling significantly short of industry funding, given that without industry funding, biomedical research would be significantly worse off.

Wooley noted that Research!America also follows trends in spending on biomedical research, and has released findings for 2004 that match the trends Moses and his colleagues reported through 2003.

Despite the doubling of biomedical research funding, productivity in the pharmaceutical industry has been declining. The number of new drugs (new molecular entities) receiving FDA approval fell from an average of 35.5 per year from 1994-97 to 23.3 per year from 2001-04, the authors found. "With this much money going into research, one would hope something could be done to improve productivity," Moses said.

The problem, according to the authors, is that pharmaceutical companies are deciding not to bring new drugs to the market because of intense competition from existing drugs that are safe and effective. "This highlights the need to invest in clinical areas with few effective treatments and for which novel mechanisms or entirely new classes of drugs are possible," the authors write.

Productivity – measured in terms of new products per dollar spent on research and development – was highest in biotechnology and device companies.

Woolley noted that it's important for researchers to stay abreast of funding trends within their industry. Researchers who complain about the lack of funding for biomedical research should take the time to publicize the results of their work to policymakers and the public, which raises awareness about research and shows people where the money is going. This increases interest in science, and the desire to fund it, Woolley said.

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