In the coming weeks and months, the budget battles in Congress for 2012 will likely grow even more acrimonious. But if there’s any hope of finding some compromise between the Democrats and Republicans, it may be in a little-known area of common ground — medical research, and particularly the exciting discoveries that are on the verge of making breakthroughs in fighting diseases that have plagued humankind for hundreds of years.
It’s not difficult to understand why this is a rare platform of bipartisanship: Good health makes good politics. The fight against infectious diseases around the world ultimately protects Americans from diseases that are just a plane ride away.
And yet, there are ominous signs that Congress will attempt to cut health research funds, despite an unprecedented string of successes in the past few years and a proven correlation between our investment in research and the growth of state economies. That would be a big mistake. Already, our pre-eminent research institution, the National Institutes of Health, is feeling the pinch. The NIH lost roughly $300 million from its budget in the recently passed budget for fiscal 2010 and has now instituted across-the-board cuts in basic research. It is unclear whether the NIH will have to scale back plans on novel approaches to limit, for instance, cancer or AIDS or dengue fever — a mosquito-transmitted disease that is starting to make more inroads in the United States.
It is becoming clear that we are now in the midst of a golden era of research, especially against diseases that affect tens of millions of people around the world. In the past two years, we witnessed major advances made in several areas: the first proof-of-concept trial that a vaccine could work against HIV; the first widespread distribution of a meningitis vaccine in the “meningitis belt” of West Africa that will protect millions of people, at a cost of less than 50 cents a dose; and the rollout of a machine once used to test for anthrax in U.S. postal service offices that will now cut the time of diagnosing tuberculosis from three months to 90 minutes.
Furthermore, the breakthroughs are no longer happening in just the same old way, with only the U.S. government funding clinical trials to bring new drugs and vaccines to market. These days, those involved in medical research are expanding in new and unexpected ways, bringing more involvement and dollars from the private sector and various foundations. Given the threat of dwindling public funds, new approaches to old problems have never been more important.
Additionally, a whole new health matchmaker service — we call it product development partnerships, or PDPs — is swinging deals that save lives. For instance, for the anthrax-turned-TB testing machine, a group called the Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics helped bring together a New Jersey scientist, a California company, U.S. public funding and a large foundation that funds global health to bring the product to market. If one of those players had not been involved, there’s a good chance the innovation would have stayed in the laboratory.
So, we have success, we have savings and we have more jobs created because of this wave of global health research and development. In a time when bipartisanship may seem a relic from days past, there’s an enormous opportunity for wise heads on both sides of the aisle to put aside political differences on this particular issue. Let’s fight to keep these strange bedfellows together for global health. They may fight on just about everything else, but on this topic, there’s too much to like.
Michael Castle (R) is a former U.S. Representative from Delaware. Kaitlin Christenson is the director of the Global Health Technologies Coalition, a group of almost 40 nonprofit organizations working to raise awareness about global health research.