Saturday, March 5, 2011

Who Drives Innovation? The crucial role of government funded research

Republicans like to argue that private companies are responsible for technological breakthroughs, but that's not true.

Last month, many of us heard the story of Brett Hallman. Hallman's mother was early in her pregnancy when she learned her son would have spina bifida, a neurological disease that affects the spinal cord's development and, in the worst cases, makes children with the disorder unable to walk and have brain damage. But the Hallmans enrolled in a trial that allowed doctors to operate on Brett in utero. The procedure had already used on newly born babies, but doctors found that babies who had surgery before they were born had dramatically improved effects with no increased risk. When Brett was 17 months old, he took his first steps, and doesn't have any of the serious problems usually associated with spina bifida.

The trial was funded through a grant from the National Institutes of Health, the largest provider of public funding for medical research. Each year, the NIH issues millions of dollars in grants to universities, clinics and research outfits around the country, funding research that private, profit-seeking companies wouldn't want to do because of the lack of immediate financial gain.

NIH funding is just one of the components on Republicans' budget chopping block. Obama's budget proposal would increase NIH funding by $1 billion, but the Republican plan to extend federal operations through the end of the year would reduce total funding for the NIH by nearly 6 percent, and cut funds for research grants by as much as half.
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