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Quantifying bang for the biomedical research buck

AAMC.cover.jpgWith the 2012 budget of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) up in the air as Congress struggles to craft next year’s spending bills, the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) has issued a report that will doubtless provide fodder to NIH-boosters on Capitol Hill.

The report, The Economic Impact of Publicly Funded Research Conducted by AAMC-Member Medical Schools and Teaching Hospitals, claims that federal- and state-funded research at these institutions added nearly US$45 billion to the US economy in 2009. The research, it adds, supported nearly 300,000 jobs, or 1 in every 500 positions in the country.

In case politicians are slow to grasp the point, AAMC president Darrell Kirch made it crystal-clear in this accompanying press release: "Through this study we…can see how important this work is as an economic driver, funneling billions into the economy and providing hundreds of thousands of high-skilled jobs as well as indirect employment in communities around the country.”

The report was compiled by the economic consulting firm Tripp Umbach for the AAMC, which represents all of the country’s 135 medical schools and is a leading lobbyist for NIH funding.

The findings are presented in a way that makes for easy state-level comparisons. The report says, for instance, that biomedical research in top-ranked California had a $5.4-billion economic impact and generated 35,734 jobs in 2009, whereas Iowa, in 25th place, experienced only $408 million in economic impact that year, and 2,719 research-generated jobs.

Francis Collins, NIH director, was quick to deploy the new numbers. In a speech to the AAMC on 7 November, the day of the report’s release, he said that it “demonstrates that NIH’s investment in biomedical research continues to have a positive effect on the health and economy of the nation.”

Collins has a fondness for quoting such reports, like this widely cited study by the group Families USA, which claimed that in 2007 every NIH dollar generated $2.21 in new state-business activity.

But the science behind these and other similar numbers has been challenged in venues such as this feature in Nature last year.

All the same, as lobbyists target lawmakers deep into budget deliberations in the coming weeks, they are likely to have the new AAMC report in their briefcases. At least some of their targets are already on board with their mission: on 2 November, 90 House members sent this letter to House spending-committee chiefs, thanking them for proposing to boost the NIH’s budget by $1 billion, or 3.3%, in 2012. Their Senate counterparts received no such missive: in September, they voted to cut the biomedical agency’s budget by $190 million, to $30.5 billion.


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