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Nation must invest in scientific research to cure the incurable

Tomorrow’s cures will be realized only if we prioritize them today. Science is our best weapon against both emerging infectious diseases, such as Zika virus, and chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes. Well-established environmental dangers, such as lead poisoning, pose a disproportionately large risk to children despite clear evidence of harm and cogent, but ignored, mitigation plans.

The notion that an ounce of prevention equals more than a pound of cure has never been more applicable, and underscores the imperative to accelerate research that helps doctors prevent disease or treat the sick or injured.

The Society for Pediatric Research and the American Academy of Pediatrics highlighted seven great achievements in pediatric research last year. These breakthroughs include curing children from cancers previously considered terminal, saving the vast majority of the almost one in nine babies born prematurely, and virtually eliminating HIV/AIDS transmission from mothers to infants. Immunization now prevents approximately 43,000 early deaths in vaccinated U.S. children.

These achievements are the result of a long-standing federal commitment to scientific funding to benefit children. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget increased steadily for over 32 years to support this work, annually increasing by 2.9 percent, and actually doubled between 1996 and 2004 – a time period spanning both Republican and Democratic presidencies.

Since then, funding has remained stagnant, while inflation costs for research have not, reducing the amount of scientific research that can be done. According to testimony provided by NIH Director Dr. Francis Collins, the NIH has lost 22 percent of its purchasing power since 2003.

The result is the worst climate for federally funded research in a generation. Researchers have had to cut back, close their laboratories or find other employment, delaying the development of treatments and cures that could help people worldwide.

Young investigators have been especially affected. When NIH grant applications are considered, established investigators have an advantage in obtaining renewals of existing grant funds due to their prior experience with grants and a solid track record of publications. Young investigators beginning their careers must compete for an ever-limited amount of new grant funds. This creates a disincentive for bright, enthusiastic, talented scientists to pursue a career in medical research.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the percentage of NIH principal investigators age 36 and younger was 3 percent in 2010, down from 18 percent in 1982. Not surprisingly, the number of established investigators over age 66 increased steadily in that time frame.

Over the next decade, the United States is at risk of relinquishing its pre-eminent position as the world leader in biomedical research.

The University at Buffalo and the University of Rochester are locally the biggest recipients of NIH grants and national leaders in pediatric research. Other area hospitals also significantly benefit from NIH funding.

Congress is finally returning to the idea that when it comes to science, you get what you pay for. Last year, it provided its largest budget increase to the NIH in 12 years, raising the funding level by $2 billion. But that is not enough to cover the cost of inflation over the past several years. In particular, dramatic constraints in NIH funding shortchange children, who make up 20 percent of the population but to whom far less than 20 percent of the funding is directed.

To create cures for today’s lethal diseases, a sustained, long-term commitment to science is imperative. This commitment must be immune to partisan whims, the talons of budget hawks and the election cycle.

While biomedical research has always enjoyed bipartisan support, the support is particularly strong now as many in Washington – Republican, Democrat and independent alike – agree that NIH funding levels must continue to increase.

This year, the research advocacy community is asking Congress to raise the NIH funding level to $34.5 billion for the next fiscal year.

Congress will soon vote on a budget that contains this $34.5 billion funding level. We hope this will resume a long tradition of research support. Now more than ever, we need to invest in tomorrow’s cures. Lets replace fear with hope!

Shetal Shah, M.D. FAAP, is a neonatologist, researcher and co-chairman of the Society for Pediatric Research Advocacy Committee, which contributed to this piece.