Report: Impact of Biomedical Research Slipping

Despite dramatic increases in publications, the last 50 years have seen relatively little return on investment for US public health, a study suggests.

Aug 18, 2015
Jef Akst

FLICKR, UNDERSTANDING ANIMAL RESEARCHGiven relatively steady increases in funding (the last 10 years aside) and the number of new papers published each year, the US biomedical research community might expect to see greater outcomes over the past half century—in terms of the numbers of new drugs approved, for example, or gains in life expectancy. But, according to a study published yesterday (August 17) in PNAS, the amount of science being done has not directly translated into public-health benefits.

“The idea of public support for biomedical research is to make lives better. But there is increasing friction in the system,” coauthor Arturo Casadevall, a microbiologist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, said in a press release. “We are spending more money now just to get the same results we always have, and this is going to keep happening if we don’t fix things.”

Casadevall teamed up with Anthony Bowen, an MD/PhD student at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, to compare the “inputs” and “outputs” of biomedical science, such as annual National Institutes of Health budgets and publication numbers, with outcomes such as drug approvals and life expectancy since 1965. What they found didn’t quite add up. While NIH budgets grew exponentially for 40 years (before leveling off) and annual publications grew sixfold over the entire time period (while the number of authors grew ninefold), the number of new drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration has increased little more than twofold and life expectancy has grown steadily at just two months per year.

“There is something wrong in the process, but there are no simple answers,” Bowen said in the release. “It may be a confluence of factors that are causing us not to be getting more bang for our buck.” These factors may include the pressure to publish high-impact papers, which could motivate researchers to cut corners or hype their results, and a rise in irreproducible studies, due to negligence or outright fraud.

“Our results are best interpreted as a cautionary tale,” Bowen and Casadevall wrote in their paper, and should “motivate new efforts to understand the parameters that influence the efficiency of science and its ability to translate discovery into practical applications.”