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Scientific breakthroughs require U.S. investment

Today, we stand at the brink of a new era in medicine. With the help of a growing array of sophisticated technological and genetic tools, we are creating new approaches that have the potential to eradicate devastating diseases. But they need significant investment to be realized.

In 1900, life expectancy in the United States was less than 50 years. Today, it is nearly 80. In 1915, 10 percent of babies born here died before the age of one. A hundred years later, this rate has declined precipitously, to less than one in 10,000.

Through biomedical research as well as public health advances, we have vanquished smallpox and nearly eliminated polio; we have sharply reduced measles, cholera, typhoid and other infectious diseases that once killed tens of thousands of Americans each year. We have developed powerful treatments to combat heart disease, cancer and other diseases.

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In large part, this historic progress rests on the work of thousands of scientists — work that requires patience, tenacity, time and money. This is why we applaud Congress for upholding our longstanding national commitment to medical progress by infusing an extra $2 billion into the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget for 2017 and laying the groundwork to repeat the investment in 2018. When faced with difficult decisions to balance the federal budget moving forward, we hope lawmakers will continue to protect critical investments in research and innovation.

The war on cancer touches all our lives, and it is a war that we can end by funding the hard work of our most talented scientists.

Beyond saving lives, medical research and discovery are powerful economic engines. For every job in the biopharmaceutical industry, two jobs are created for those who provide services to this industry. According to the nonprofit group United for Medical Research, in 2016 the NIH supported nearly 380,000 jobs and $65 billion in economic activity.

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There’s more. A recent study by researchers at Harvard Business School, MIT and Columbia University examined more than 365,000 research grants awarded between 1980 and 2007, nearly all of them funded by the NIH. The researchers cross-checked the grants with U.S. patent data and found that more than a third of them resulted in more than 80,000 patent applications by private companies and universities. Clearly, federal research funding plays a crucial role in the private-sector free enterprise system.

Today, we stand at the brink of a new era in medicine. With the help of a growing array of sophisticated technological and genetic tools, we are creating new approaches that have the potential to eradicate diseases that devastate or kill tens of millions of people in this country and around the world. However, realizing this potential will require years or even decades of intense research — and a significant upfront investment by our country.

"You have a degree in what?” I get that question frequently because I work in the construction business, and no one expects that I have a bachelor’s in physics. Myths abound when it comes to science and career options; let me shatter four of them.

We should also remember the importance of funding public health in an era of globalization. Ubiquitous international travel has made it easy for infectious diseases — including Zika, West Nile virus and Ebola — to spread within hours from Africa or Asia to the United States. Reducing the research budget would severely injure our ability to monitor these potential threats, and to respond aggressively once they appear.

To understand the importance of research and discovery, we need only look to China, a country sharply focused on becoming a world leader in the 21st century. Already, China has more researchers than we do. It now ranks second to the United States in research funding, but it is aggressively increasing how much it spends on science. A recent report by the Credit Suisse Bank predicted that by 2020, China will pull ahead of the United States in total research funding.

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We have more than 100 years of powerful, irrefutable evidence that biomedical research saves lives and powers our economy. We must continue to remember that this work is the foundation of future breakthroughs. It not only protects the precious gains we have already made, it supports our overall national health and prosperity.

Dr. E. Albert Reece (deanmed@som.umaryland.edu) is dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Dr. Paul B. Rothman is dean of the medical faculty and CEO of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

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