This year, the annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) – the world’s largest gathering of cancer researchers – will present significantly fewer studies that are fully funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That’s a dramatic decrease for American researchers, who usually dominate the meeting’s news conferences, which typically present the most exciting and newsworthy research.
In fact, the number of studies that are fully funded by the NIH has fallen by 75 percent in the last ten years, from 575 papers in 2008 to 144 in 2017, according to the Society. There has been a shift in balance between U.S. and international researchers. Just five years ago, there were 15 studies in the “press program” that were led by American researchers versus nine that were led by international researchers. This year, there were 14 studies led by international researchers versus 12 that were led by U.S.-based research teams. International studies in the press program came from Europe, Canada, and China.
Although the budget for the National Cancer Institute (NCI) has continued to grow, it has not kept up with inflation. Therefore, the NCI notes, its purchasing power has declined by 25% since 2003. For this and other reasons, some believe that America is losing its edge in medical research.
Due to the fact that even the brightest, most innovative young scientists are having a hard time getting funding for their research, they are turning to big pharma companies rather than universities. This could mean that an entire generation of young, talented scientists could be lost to the pharmaceutical industry. That’s why public funding is so essential – it strives to answer questions that are not of interest to the drug companies, but that are extremely important to making breakthroughs in cancer research – and especially to the patients who are suffering from cancer.
Drug companies tend to fund studies that will get their medications approved. They do not typically fund studies that focus on cancer prevention, screening, or quality of life. The NIH, on the other hand, funds comparisons of cancer drugs, which allow patients and their doctors to determine the best treatments for their unique cases.
Perhaps the biggest difference between government-funded research and industry research is that the former tends to apply funding to the greatest need, while industry research focuses on marketable products. And, while there seems to be a continuing decline in government research in this country, the American Cancer Society has pledged to double its research budget to $240 million by 2021. However, both charities and the drug industry are hesitant to cover the indirect costs of research, such as labs. That’s why government grants are so important.
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