Even as budget battles rage and a $1 trillion deficit justifies spending cuts, Congress should consider finding more money to fund basic research — especially in the life sciences.
A larger appropriation for the world’s largest funder of basic medical research, the National Institutes of Health, represents a rare form of spending that even fiscal conservatives should get behind. Such research is the kind of government activity that the private sector will not do by itself and, done properly, could reverse worrying trends.
Let’s start with the basics: NIH’s research is an important, beneficial activity that the private sector simply will not do. Like clean air and national defense, advancing our understanding of nature is a public good — something that can only be provided by the government.
In economic terms, such basic research is “non-rivalrous” in that individuals’ understanding of, say, the structure of DNA does not prohibit others from having the same knowledge. It’s also “non-excludable” because once scientists have made a discovery about the nature of the universe, they have no way of stopping others from using that knowledge for practical purposes. These realities make the incentive structure such that the private market will not lead to adequate amounts of research on its own.
Additionally, it’s notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to predict which scientific discoveries will be useful.
Gregor Mendel’s early work that began the science of genetics, for example, took place in the 1860s, while the first commonly used genetic tests for humans were introduced in the 1970s. This makes basic science a relatively high-risk investment, albeit one that pays off tremendously in the long run. Even the NIH’s more practical, applied research, for the most part, consists of activities that are not likely to be funded by private companies, which are more directly responsive to short-term commercial pressures.
Although such medical research is hugely beneficial, it doesn’t always generate profits. This is why it’s appropriate for government to step in where businesses won’t.
Furthermore, a large portion of the NIH’s more practical and applied research is geared toward solving medical problems, such as the tropical disease Leishmaniasis, that cause enormous human suffering but that may not be economically attractive to treat. For instance, those afflicted with the disease may not have high enough incomes to make it profitable to develop treatments, or the timeline for developing effective treatments might far exceed what private companies can reasonably tolerate.
This is where public support comes in, by making the long-term investments to deliver the foundational research that others — including private companies — can use to develop and bring effective treatments to market.
In any case, basic research in the life sciences pays off in the most important way possible, through longer, better human lives.
Over 80 Nobel prizes  have stemmed from NIH research. The mapping of the human genome, advances that changed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable condition, major new cancer treatments, and much of the research showing just how dangerous smoking is would not have happened without NIH-supported research in basic science. We can expect more of the same from future NIH work. With average life expectancy actually declining  in the United States — largely because of the opioid epidemic — it’s more important than ever to find new treatments.
This does not mean, of course, that we should simply throw money at the NIH with no concern for results. Conservatives are right to be wary of excessive government control of scientific research, and the final stage of health research — discovery and testing of drugs and treatments for consumer use — is likely best left to the private sector. But conservatives should keep in mind that the vast majority  of the NIH’s budget, 80%, supports research conducted outside of its own campus — much of it in private universities, hospitals, and labs — rather than directed by the government agency itself.
Like any big agency, the NIH can certainly do things better. Efforts to direct more funding toward younger researchers (who historically have made the bulk of scientific discoveries), recruit more talented people from every demographic group into the sciences, and place an even stronger emphasis on basic research — along with other high-risk, high-reward projects that only the government can do on a significant scale — are all in order.
But even in tight fiscal times, there’s a good case for conservatives to support appropriating a few more dollars for the NIH.
Image credit: Jer123 
- “80 Nobel prizes”: https://history.nih.gov/about/timelines_research_advances.html
- “actually declining”: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/07/09/us-life-expectancy-has-been-declining-heres-why.html
- “vast majority”: https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43341.pdf
- “Jer123”: https://www.shutterstock.com/g/jer123