As the biggest single patron of basic science, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) makes long-term investments in foundational research that others—including private companies—can use to develop and bring effective treatments to market. Besides its economic benefits, basic research in the life sciences pays off by enabling life-saving medical innovations, including many that help us combat COVID-19—such as the reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction (or RT-PCR) technique used for testing or the RNA vaccine currently under development.

Unfortunately, NIH funding remains stuck below 2003 levels as a share of GDP. This reflects a broader pattern of declining federal support for basic science as a percentage of U.S. R&D spending. While there is growing awareness today of the importance of federal R&D, spurred in part by the coronavirus crisis, basic science tends to get overlooked in favor of applied research and product development. But, as a public good that is vital to innovation, basic science deserves public support. This event will spotlight the importance of basic research in the life sciences, especially for responding to the current pandemic, and explore prospects for increasing federal support as a long-term strategy to prepare the country for future public health threats.

A panel representing a diverse array of perspectives will point to the specific ways in which basic research in the life sciences stimulates medical and technological innovation, address criticisms and concerns about current R&D policies, and consider various proposals to improve federal funding for basic science.


  • Paula Cohen, Professor of Genetics and Associate Vice Provost for Life Sciences, Cornell University,
  • Robert Cook-Deegan, School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University
  • Jon Lorsch, Director, the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS) at NIH
  • Tony Mills, Director, Science PolicyThe R Street Institute