Karen Cyphers: Federal research slump is Florida’s opportunity

Ominous headlines on federal cuts to biomedical research are not exaggerating the consequences.  These cuts mean tangible damage to fruitful research programs, laboratories and discoveries.

It takes forever (OK, only a decade or two) for most drugs to progress from basic discovery through trials to federal approval.  Seemingly small delays now translate into a loss of years when talking treatments and cures for disease.

This is an area where the private market simply won’t pick up the tab. Big Pharma doesn’t want to invest up front.  Only a tiny fraction of basic research pans out, and they want the stuff that’s already made it past a few cuts.  That’s what the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and a few other major public grant programs are for.

Recent NIH cuts mean 640 fewer grants in the last fiscal year, and several hundred more will go without funding next year.  Among research groups, 54 percent of those who receive federal funding said they have laid off or will lay off staff, and nearly 20 percent of scientists have considered moving overseas for better funding opportunities.

This is where Florida can step in.

Florida is on a mission to boost the high-wage, skilled workforce.  Dollars spent on university research mean more faculty in more laboratories, more discoveries, and more people staying in Florida to continue the work that they’ve started.

The best example these days is Alzheimer’s.  On a personal level it is because my 63-year-old father is living with the disease.  But the stats show how the disease impacts everyone and state coffers alike.

Alzheimer’s is the No. 1 threat to Medicare and Medicaid budgets and is more costly to the nation than heart disease or cancer.  There are no disease-modifying treatments or cures. In Florida, 450,000 older adults live with Alzheimer’s, a 25 percent increase from the year 2000.  By 2025, Florida is projected to have 590,000 residents with Alzheimer’s.  There are more than 1.02 million unpaid caregivers in Florida.

Without reiterating a ton of numbers, if an investment in Alzheimer’s research resulted in just a 1 percent reduction in state treatment costs, this would more than cover the research bill.

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature created a Purple Ribbon Task Force to set a plan for Alzheimer’s policy in Florida. The Task Force issued a report this summer that recommended the creation of a grant program modeled after the James and Esther King and BankHead Coley Biomedical Research Program.   This is a great idea. The proposed timeline begins with the development of a model in the summer of 2014 followed by seeking Legislative approval and ultimately appropriations in the spring of 2015.

We don’t need to wait that long to get started, though.

This spring, the Legislature can support university-based Alzheimer’s research with no such grant program in place.  There are numerous Florida-based projects that show tremendous promise.  For example, Florida State University’s College of Medicine has a team of researchers at the Center for Brain Repair with an aggressive and comprehensive Alzheimer’s agenda.

While the feds are stalled, Florida’s budget is balanced and thriving.  Paying for research now will keep scientists and their discoveries in state.

These discoveries will save billions in dollars and in lives.

Guest Author


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