Appropriate funding is crucial for scientific progress, which is especially true in the case of basic science. Fundamental studies do not deliver a final product or potential revenue in a short-term, so the most wealthy stakeholders in R&D – business – are unlikely to invest their money in them.
Studies exploring the main mechanisms of aging and age-related diseases are part of basic science, hence they depend very much on state funding. This is why the recent proposal to cut biomedical research funding by President Donald Trump may look to our community as a serious threat to progress. So let’s take a look at the numbers and see what the situation is.
In the new budget proposal the spendings on the Department of Health and Human Services will be reduced by 23 percent. In 2016 the HHS received $84,6 billion, this time only $65.1 billion has been allocated for the 2018 fiscal year. In particular, this will mean decreased support for the National Institutes of Health (the main body conducting and funding medical research). NIH funding will be reduced by $5.8 billion, or about 18 percent compared to 2017. There is no guarantee, however, that this plan will be approved by Congress. The detailed budget is expected to be published in May, until then it is probably too early to draw conclusions.
It is worth noting, that the trend of flat or fluctuating federal budget for research is not new. The UNESCO Science Report 2015 shows, that most US federal research budgets have remained flat or declined in inflation-adjusted dollars over the past five years, which is explained by the drive by Congress to trim several trillion dollars from the federal budget to reduce the deficit. Since 2004, NIH funding has remained flat or decreased when inflation is taken into account. In 2015 the NIH budget was lower than in 2003–2005, when it peaked at around $35 billion per year.
The federal government traditionally aims to support basic research, while the industry takes the lead in applied research and technological development. If this trend of shrinking support continues, what could this mean for the main USA contributors to aging research? Let’s take a look at the revenue composition for the Buck Institute as an example.
The Buck’s budget totals about $35 million a year. According to the last available report, in 2015 Government grants made up 43,2% (around $15 millions) while contributions from donors accounted for 17% and the support from the board of Trustees brought in 18,4% (nearly 6 million from each). Grants from other sources accounted for another 8%, while corporate research brought only 5%. So the share of public contributions in total is equal to the share of Government support.
In case the reduction of 18% to Government funding for research is applied to all research institutions receiving funds from the NIH, the Buck might lose around 3 million in revenue. To put this into perspective, this would equate to the funding for 2 of its 19 laboratories – unless the public steps in and increases the amount of contributions.
Even though this scenario is just speculation so far, this is exactly why the Buck is constantly strengthening its international network of supporters, and is now devoting even more time to engaging local authorities and the public in a dialogue about the importance of research on aging. In case Government funding is reduced in the next few years, private donations will likely be the only reliable source of funding with sufficient volume to save the day.
Let me stress two things logically following from this information.
First, the growth of the life extension community is crucial to ensure the advancement of breakthrough aging research regardless of the political situation. What we need is further investigation of the mechanisms of aging and age-related diseases, and the development of prototype technologies to address these mechanisms. Only this can allow us to prevent age-related pathologies and achieve systemic rejuvenation. But people cannot support initiatives that they don’t understand, so the most appropriate way to grow the community (and its funding potential) is to educate the general public. This education can take many forms, ranging from talking to friends and reposting news on aging research in social media, to running scalable educational programs for journalists, representatives of medical industry, public health activists and different decision makers. Filling this gap of communication and helping to disseminate information from the scientific community to the public can have a direct and positive impact in the near future.
Second, the movement of additional funds from the public to the lab depends on the simplicity and functionality of transfer mechanisms. Each donor would like to see his money invested wisely, to support the projects with the highest impact on the field. But for a non-specialist it might be hard to understand the place of a given project in the overall frame of aging research, as well as to evaluate if the research group asking for money is reputable and knowledgeable enough. This is where specialised fundraising initiatives like the crowdfunding platform Lifespan.IO step in. All proposed projects and teams are evaluated by the directors and their scientific advisors, comprised of renowned scientists in the field. Each project is explained in detail, including the study protocol and cost estimate to ensure maximum transparency. Once collected, money goes straight to the lab in just few weeks, and the study begins.
Bringing large scale changes to society is hard. Human history is full of examples, when life-saving ideas, like washing hands with antiseptic by Ignas Semmelweis, were not understood by the public and the professional community at the beginning, and the pioneers had to fight fiercely for a long time to promote them. But we also have many inspiring examples, when public health activists changed the pace of scientific research dramatically helping to create new cures, from which we can learn. Let’s remember, that with the global population aging rapidly and the growing burden of age-related disease we have nowhere to retreat. So let’s do our best to support the researchers in their endeavour to make our lives healthier – and happier – at any age.