A Worthy New Year's Resolution for the New Congress

With few significant legislative achievements for science and innovation in the 113th Congress, we look to the new Congress to fuel the momentum needed for medical progress, summoning the political will necessary to speed scientific discovery and drug development. While patients and their families are waiting for cures, anemic funding increases for the federal health agencies in the FY15 spending bill and inaction on proposals to remove barriers to innovation reveal that research has yet to become a top legislative priority.

One action Congress took was to approve emergency funding to fight Ebola, which among other priorities will help boost the research that is critical to containing this devastating disease. Beyond Ebola, the question is: are we prepared to prevent or contain the next outbreak? Can we be confident, that after a decade-plus of funding cuts, federal health agencies are in a position to assure our protection and at the same time advance innovative studies that will deliver vaccines and other preventive strategies, as well as effective treatments and cures? The National Institutes of Health alone has lost nearly a quarter of its purchasing power over the last decade. With the exception of the Ebola funds, the budgets for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration have been relatively stagnant with sequestration squeezing resources even further. The National Science Foundation has fared slightly better in terms of funding but the agency's social and behavioral sciences research has come under attack, robbing us all of what we need to know to effectively combat obesity and a host of other health threats. And the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality remains a political target despite a recent agency report that shows 1.3 million fewer hospital-acquired conditions over a three-year period, saving 50,000 lives and $12 billion in health care costs.

As the new Congress sets priorities, there are strong indications that the political climate is ripe for a surge in science. Bipartisan support for the 21st Century Cures Initiative, a comprehensive study of roadblocks to medical innovation and development of new disease therapies and treatments, is slated to move forward with draft legislation early next year. The measure is expected to address six areas of reform: integrating patients' perspectives into the regulatory process, modernizing clinical trials, fostering the future of science, investing in advancing research, incentivizing the development of new drugs and devices for unmet medical needs and supporting digital medicine. Research stakeholders ranging from academia to industry to patient groups are working closely with the architects of this initiative, Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.), to ensure the measure will remove barriers to getting new treatments and cures to patients more quickly.

There is also bipartisan support to reform tax legislation, a light or heavy lift depending on the tax package. All signs point to a repeal of the medical device tax in the new Congress but the jury is still out on whether the R&D tax credit can be made permanent and ultimately whether Congress is ready to tackle tax and entitlement reform overall. A favorable tax climate and strong investments in research are critical to improving our population's health, boosting the economy and spurring further private sector innovation. With sustained federal funding at risk in a deficit reduction environment, alternative funding models to augment appropriations should be considered including but not limited to a mandatory trust fund dedicated to steady growth in research.

Federally funded research has converted the death sentence formerly faced by HIV/AIDS patients into a manageable illness; it led to the development of the polio vaccine and has reduced childhood cancer mortality rates. There is so much more to do. We need a vaccine for HIV/AIDS, we must find the way to postpone onset of Alzheimer's and ultimately eliminate it, and diabetes and mental illness, as well. The legacy of the 113th Congress in science is nothing to brag about. But members of the 114th Congress are in a position to accelerate research and innovation by establishing priorities that will benefit the health and well-being of their constituents. We urge them to adopt a New Year's resolution that every American can embrace: do what it takes on the policy side to make finding cures a number one national priority. Science and innovation will do the rest, given the demonstrated confidence of the nation's elected legislative body.