It is unquestionable that the United States is a research and development powerhouse when it comes to revolutionary advances in biotechnology and pharmacogenomics (the study of how a person’s genetic inheritance affects the body’s reaction to drugs); as to the reasons why, these many times end up in political debate.

It has often been heard as an argument that a reduction in the government’s spending in research is the direct cause of a lack of advance in the search for cures for this or that disease. One recalls, for instance, the actor Michael J. Fox going on T.V. to support a certain party and candidate for president because this would mean more U.S. government budget money for Parkinson’s disease research. Another actor, Christopher Reeve, comes to mind – not as a supporter or detractor of any political candidate, but as the subject (after his death) of a politician’s argument, that more or less stated that if federal dollars had gone into stem-cell research, Mr. Reeve might still be amongst us. Of course probably worse examples than these can be found, as politics is not a make-nice practice.

To offer some perspective, though, we can offer the following data:

  • In the early 1990s, National Institutes for Health (NIH) biomedical R&D spending was about  $10 billion
  • By 2003, R&D for NIH was $25 billion
  • From 2003 to 2007, the figure stayed about the same.
  • In 2007 it came down to $23 billion, although it remained the same as a percentage of discretionary spending

What the above tells us is that there has been a very important increase in the R&D federal dollars that are budgeted in the past decade and a half.

Since most advances do come from the United States, this alone should be a good explanation for those who equate federal money with research advancement. But in reality there is more to this issue than meets the eye, as the research environment in the U.S. is less centralized, more competitive, more risk-tolerant, and richer in cash (public, but mostly private cash) than any other in the world.

The lack of price controls for drugs in the U.S. allow for better profit margins that can be reinvested in R&D.  All in all, the R&D machine in the United States is working just fine and, as a matter of fact, is subsidizing drug and treatment development in the rest of the developed world, where universal healthcare, drug price controls, and other hindrances of market forces are preventing Western Europe, Canada or Japan – for instance – from bringing drugs and treatments quicker from R&D phase into availability in the market, even with the aid of pharmaceutical consulting firms.