1. Opinion

Cuts in medical research bad for health, jobs

Threats of extensive cuts to federal support for medical research deserve the attention of Floridians who expect continued improvement in medical care — and who hope to see the state grow its innovation economy.

No one questions the need to rein in deficit spending. But medical research is unique in its ability to improve health, lengthen lifespans and spur the innovation that has propelled the United States to global prominence. Slashing federal support for medical research would undermine these legacies, ceding our greatest strengths to China and India even as those countries pour money into research and innovation.

Nowhere is the case for medical research stronger than at the nation's major research universities, the source of many of the greatest advances in medicine since World War II.

From molecular genetics to the fight against cancer, from magnetic resonance imaging to organ transplantation, research universities have contributed thousands of lifesaving diagnostic tools, medical treatments and cures. The ability to mass-produce insulin for diabetics, a cure for childhood leukemia, kidney dialysis, the vaccine for hepatitis B, artificial hips and joints — these are just a handful of innovations that trace their roots to the laboratories of research universities.

As a top 20 public research university and the home of Florida's most comprehensive health science center, the University of Florida shares in this legacy.

UF scientists created a breakthrough treatment for glaucoma, the second leading cause of blindness worldwide. They pioneered advances in gene therapy that today are tapped by scientists around the world. Among many other contributions, UF researchers helped to develop patient simulators now in common use by medical students.

Improved health is the highest outcome of medical research, but lower health care costs are a welcome consequence. One study estimates that the polio vaccine saved $180 billion in the cost of treating polio patients. Another finds that reducing cancer deaths by just 1 percent has a $500 billion economic value. As philanthropist Mary Lasker put it, "If you think research is expensive, try disease."

What's more, medical research is a proven creator of high-paying, high-skill jobs — a timely role as the economic recovery show signs of accelerating.

This benefit results only in part from the research itself. Federal and state research funding at the nation's medical schools and teaching hospitals supports 300,000 full-time jobs, according to a 2011 report from the Association of American Medical Colleges. In Florida, the economic impact of medical research tops $853 million and more than 5,600 jobs.

Medical research also provides the fertile soil for growth of the biotechnology industry. This is especially important in Florida, where policymakers are striving to diversify an economy that overly dependent on tourism and real estate development.

UF medical research is at the heart of the university's largest and most successful spinoff company. RTI Biologics, which makes surgical implants, reported third-quarter revenues topping $42 million and employs more than 700 people. And RTI is only the largest of 41 spinoffs that have graduated from UF's biotech incubator, many based on medical research.

These and other UF spinoffs have together generated more than 8,000 jobs statewide, many of them high skill and high wage. Florida bioscience employees' average salary is $55,000, compared with $40,000 for the average worker.

The main driver for university medical research and innovation is the National Institutes of Health. NIH devotes 80 percent of its $31 billion budget to research grants for more than 325,000 scholars at more than 3,000 universities and research institutions.

Today, this lifeblood for research is under threat. Federal lawmakers cut the NIH's budget in fiscal year 2011. With Congress determined to find ways to further reduce deficit spending, deep cuts may be more likely than at any time in the NIH's history.

Such a course of action would have damaging consequences in all states, and Florida may be among the most vulnerable. That's because the state's large elderly population is an outsized beneficiary of NIH-supported research in heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer's and many other prevalent conditions associated with aging.

Congress has no easy options as it seeks to reduce federal spending. But the cost of medical research is small compared to its benefits in raising our quality of life and supporting innovation, entrepreneurship and Florida's technology economy. Sunshine State residents should urge their lawmakers to consider all the consequences before they pursue this damaging course.

Win Phillips is the senior vice president and chief operating officer of the University of Florida. David Guzick is UF's senior vice president for health affairs and president of the UF & Shands Health System.