Will the Money Lead to Success?
The ’04 plan offered its own set of themes—essentially, broader and interrelated goals for what NIH should achieve in obesity research. This included studies on preventing and treating obesity through lifestyle modification as well as pharmacologic, surgical, or other medical approaches and research toward breaking the link between obesity and its associated health conditions.
The NIH’s current concern reflects the growing cost of studying obesity as well as the growing epidemic. Between fiscal years 2007 and 2010, spending on obesity research swelled by nearly two-thirds, from $595 million to $971 million, according to the NIH.
By contrast, spending on diabetes, which is linked to obesity, increased by 12% between FY ’07 and FY ’10, from $1.069 billion to $1.199 billion. The costliest research category, cancer, saw a spending rise of 19% during that same period, from $5.549 billion to $6.626 billion.
According to Dr. Loria, advances in basic and clinical obesity research over the past decade have served as a catalyst for an increasing number of researchers who devote time and efforts to obesity-related research; research that has been enabled with no small help from NIH research dollars. The 2009 and 2010 figures for obesity research spending—$862 million and $971 million, respectively—were inflated by the availability of millions of additional research dollars through the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the so-called stimulus measure enacted by President Obama shortly after he took office. ARRA was the source of an additional $117 million in obesity grants in FY 2009 and $147 million in FY 2010.
Subtract the ARRA money and you still have significantly higher spending on obesity research than the $661 million spent in FY 2006, let alone the lower FY 2007 level. The NIH budget accounted for $745 million in obesity grants for FY ’09 and $824 million in FY ’10. For the current fiscal year, which began October 1, 2010, NIH estimates it will spend $823 million on obesity research, a figure it predicted would rise to $837 million in FY 2012.
President Obama on Friday signed a continuing resolution that cuts NIH funding by $260 million. The cut is a compromise between the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, which proposed cutting NIH funding by $1.6 billion, and the Democratic-controlled Senate, which sought to freeze NIH spending at the FY 2010 level.
Yet the new strategic plan didn’t delve into the issue of what money will be available. Dr. Loria said the task force will monitor the state of funding as well as the state of obesity research initiatives, “to identify areas that are critical but understudied or show the most promise for addressing the obesity public health challenge.”
The 2004 plan did touch upon funding, but offered readers little more than a pitch to check out the funding opportunities available on the NIH Obesity Research website, and a promise: “Investigator-initiated research represents a substantial portion of the NIH funding portfolio, and the NIH will continue vigorous support of these efforts.”
How funding trends will affect the ability of researchers to study obesity and help fight it over the next few years is worthy of significant attention, and not just the next time the agency gets around to writing a strategic plan. The more NIH can show results from its research spending, the better it can rebut lawmakers and other critics intent on reducing its budgets, not to mention justify future funding increases.