Imagine an economic stimulus that could increase jobs, help the domestic economy and strengthen our global competitiveness, while also reducing disease and improving health. Before you say it sounds too good to be true, repeat after me: National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The NIH supports groundbreaking research with tremendous economic benefits. It has created a generation of new jobs and products, and developed preventive, therapeutic and diagnostic measures that improve Americans' health and overall quality of life.

Biomedical research is a significant economic driver.

According to nonpartisan analyses, the NIH gives $23 billion to support research work at universities and institutions. This funding in all 50 states immediately generates more than $50 billion in new business, including more than $18 billion in wages.

Research funding creates skilled jobs, new products and improved technologies. More than 4,000 new technologies were brought to market by nearly 200 universities, hospitals and research institutions between 1998 and 2006, according to Congressional testimony by former NIH director Elias Zerhouni. And from 1980 to 2006, nearly 6,000 new companies were formed around technologies developed by these research institutions, which rely upon direct funding from the NIH.

At $2 trillion a year, health care spending in the United States is more than 16 percent of the gross domestic product. The NIH budget for outside research (as opposed to what it does in its own laboratories) represents about 1 percent of national health care expenditures. Yet the payoff for consumers in health care has been enormous: In the past 30 years, age-adjusted stroke deaths have fallen 70 percent; age-adjusted heart disease deaths dropped 60 percent; AIDS deaths since 1995 have been reduced by 70 percent; and vaccines have virtually eliminated numerous diseases.

Despite this undeniable success story, NIH funding has not kept pace with inflation since 2004, and the basic demographics of aging baby boomers and the emerging obesity epidemic could negate decades of progress. The current NIH budget represents a loss of more than $3.6 billion in purchasing power since 2003. Even the heralded "doubling" of the NIH budget between 1998 and 2003 was followed by years of stagnation, so the NIH budget has actually grown more slowly since 1998 than in the prior 30 years.

The NIH has been very nimble as it redirects its focus from a "late curative paradigm to an early preemptive one." As chronic disease—much of it preventable—consumes the largest portion of U.S. health care expenses, investment in preventive medical science is not only smart care but also smart economics.

When Mr. Obama puts forward his package to stimulate economic growth, he must be encouraged to increase NIH research—it makes good economic sense and even better policy sense. Improved infrastructure, energy independence, education and environmental protection can improve the life and welfare of Americans. But if we don't have our health, none of it matters.

 

Goldman is executive vice president for Health and Biomedical Sciences and dean of the faculties of Health Sciences and Medicine; he is also the Harold and Margaret Hatch Professor of the University.

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