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Hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions on The Broken Pipeline: Losing Opportunities in the Life Sciences


Location: Washington, DC

Hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions on The Broken Pipeline: Losing Opportunities in the Life Sciences

(As Prepared for Delivery)

I welcome our committee members to today's hearing on the funding of NIH and its impact on innovation. I welcome too President Faust, Dean Miller, and our other distinguished witnesses, and I look forward to hearing their conclusions and recommendations.

Imagine holding a hearing on medical research a hundred years ago. At that time, even the idea of vaccines against polio, or measles, or whooping cough might have seemed far-fetched. A hearing fifty years ago might have spoken of effective treatments for cancer as a distant dream, perhaps never to be achieved.

Twenty years ago, the participants at such a hearing might have raised the hope of treatments for AIDS, but would have cautioned that this hope might not become a reality for decades. Even fifteen years ago, witnesses might have spoken of the far-off day when the complete sequence of the human genome would be decoded.

Today, breakthroughs that were once distant dreams are realities that make a difference in the lives of patients in every community in America. They draw their inspiration from many sources, but they all have two core elements in common - the brilliance of medical researchers, and the support of the American public.

What will be discussed at a hearing on medical progress in five or ten year's time? Will we review a decade of continued progress, with new breakthroughs in diabetes, spinal injury, Alzheimer's Disease, and other serious afflictions? Or will we look back in regret at a decade of missed opportunities and squandered potential?

The actions that Congress takes in the coming months will help determine which of those two possible futures becomes a reality.

We cannot close our eyes to the consequences of continued failure to capitalize on the progress we have made in medicine in recent years. Thanks to thoughtful research and scholarship by a consortium of universities that includes many of our nation's leading centers of innovation, we have before us a chilling statement of where our current budget policies for NIH will lead.

The report's conclusions are a call to action for Congress and the nation. President Faust of Harvard, one of the authors of the report, will present the findings in more detail, but even a brief review of some of the major conclusions should shock those who hear them.

Due to inadequate funding, the success rate for grant applications has dropped from 32 percent in 1999 to 24 percent today. For young researchers, the situation is even more dire. Their success rate in applying for their first independent research grants has dropped from 29 percent in 1999 to 12 percent today. That means a young researcher has just one chance in eight of getting a grant.

As a result, the age at which a researcher gets his or her first independent research grant has risen from 39 years old in 1990 to 43 years old today. Many young scientists conclude that it's not worth the wait, and pursue other career options. Even those scientists who do get funded are forced to spend more time writing grants and less time doing research at the bench. Many turn to industry jobs where they can benefit from funding security, despite losing the freedom to pursue academic research.

I recommend that every committee member look at the excellent comments from scientific leaders that are included in the report, but one to me was particularly striking.

My friend, Joshua Boger, the CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, and President of BIO, summarized the risks of our current course this way: "You can lose a generation of researchers pretty fast—in five or ten years. You create such a discouraging atmosphere they just go somewhere else instead of academic research. We don't have to lose 50,000 researchers, just 50 really good ones. Once it happens, we won't get those people back."

If we lose the talents of a generation of young researchers, we put in peril not only medical progress, but America's leadership in life sciences too. A culture of innovation and discovery does not just happen. It must be nurtured or it will wither.

The United States has a long tradition of being a global innovative leader - but we can't take our leadership for granted. Today, it's at risk. Thirty years ago, U.S. researchers published 90 percent of all scientific literature on information technology. Today, it's less than half. Unless we invest in the life sciences, we will lose our global leadership in biotechnology.

As a nation, we must make a choice between continued progress or the stifling of innovation. I thank President Faust, Dean Miller, and all our distinguished witnesses for joining us today to give their recommendations on this important issue. I look forward to your comments and to our discussions.

I welcome the comments of the Ranking Member of this committee, Senator Enzi.

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