The 2012 Agenda: The Bipartisan Appeal of Improving Biomedical Research Infrastructure

ElectionWith the race for the GOP nomination for the presidential election now in full swing, the 2012 political agenda is now the object of public debate and discussion.  Chief among these political agenda issues involves healthcare. President Obama’s first term in office saw healthcare reform as a primary focus with the passage of his healthcare reform bill in 2009, which aimed to cut long-term costs, invest in prevention and wellness, and to assure affordable coverage amongst other goals.

Partisan politics almost derailed Obama’s attempts at addressing healthcare equity and will continue to plaque the political landscape.  For this reason, I argue that the 2012 agenda should focus on issues that appear to have some bipartisan support, are related to health equity outcomes and can be improved upon. These issues should satisfy the core constituencies of the Republican and Democratic parties: involve the free market and stimulate economic growth (Republican party) and facilitate equitable outcomes for Americans (Democratic party).

One area that meets this requirement would be an increase in funds available to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and in particular, an increase in grants given to researchers in the nation’s many institutions that conduct research in bio-medicine. Recent years witnessed a precipitous decrease in the successful funding rate of NIH grants, which has meant less money for the biomedical workforce.  2011 saw a rate of 17.7%, down from 20.6% in 2010 (which itself represented a decrease.

Such a measure would be appealing to the GOP because increased funds spent on research would lead to biomedical and technological innovation, which could stimulate the economy and create jobs.  New cancer therapies, for example, would keep the Unites States competitive in the global economy and potentially improve the life for thousands of Americans affected by cancer.

Novel breakthroughs in the infectious disease arena have an even farther reach: national security.  With increases in the number and frequency of emerging infectious diseases, the potential remains for weaponized pathogens falling into the hands of radical extremists and terrorist groups, posing a very real threat for civilians around the world. Through research, novel vaccines for infectious diseases can be discovered and the processes that create and manufacture these vaccines improved upon.

Such a measure might be appealing to the Democratic party’s interests because bio-medicine holds the potential key to approaches that could improve the health of all Americans. For one, preventative health researchers are among the many beneficiaries of NIH grants and, therefore, more funds available to researchers benefit preventative health efforts.   Vaccines, for example, are the definitive preventative measure for infectious diseases and save millions of dollars. More effective vaccines mean fewer public dollars spent on healthcare and more productivity from American’s workforce.

Human Genome ProjectEven further, the advent ofpersonalized medicine hopes to tailor-make therapies to fit the individual needs of patients. Based on an understanding of an individual’s genomic and metabolic profile, clinicians might be able to identify specific therapeutic regimen most likely to be effective.  This could drastically decrease ineffective and costly excess. With the Human Genome Project “complete” (depending on how you define completion), the time is now to translate these new discoveries into therapies.  These purely scientific exploits have often been criticized as unrealistic and proclaimed as not being worth taxpayer dollars. While it is always difficult to tell exactly when the public will reap the benefits of scientific breakthroughs, not capitalizing on this golden opportunity could be very costly in the long run.

Lastly, quite a bit of the money dedicated to NIH grants funds science education: undergraduate, graduate/postgraduate training, medical residency programs and junior professorships.   As the United States continues to lag behind many nations in terms of science and mathematics education, continuing to develop the scientific pipeline is a key to maintaining the United States’ place as an intellectual and economic power-player for years to come.

It is time that health justice embraces the potential power of bio-medicine in helping underserved communities.  The worlds of basic science and health justice have been historically segregated mostly because basic science wasn’t in a position to deliver on its promises to create actual therapies.  This has changed during the last decade and the 2012 political agenda provides the set of political circumstances necessary to bolster a research infrastructure that could benefit all Americans, thereby fusing the interests of those who study human disease with those who fight for health justice.