Want to Be a Scientist? Maybe You Better Learn Chinese

On paper, the numbers look like the federal government has been fairly consistent over the years in its support, but with the rising cost of research and inflation, the real purchasing power has dropped precipitately, Jagsi said, possibly as much as $1 billion over that six year period.

Surprisingly, the biggest drop in U.S. funding has come from industry, not agencies like the National Institutes of Health. From 2007 through 2012, public funding went from $48 billion to $48.9 billion while industry's investment dropped from $83.3 billion to $70.4 billion.

"That surprised us," Jagsi said.

She and her coauthors think that could be because biomedical research is looking for the cheapest labor, like everything from autos to textiles. Companies that face enormous costs in moving their potential products from the lab to the pharmacy may be shipping more money to Asia, in particular. Higher government subsidies, and less bureaucratic hassle, may also contribute.

There's no question about it. Biomedical research leading to drugs and new treatment technologies is really expensive. Just getting a drug through clinical trials and into the marketplace can literally cost billions, although the journey is so difficult to predict that no one knows exactly how much it's going to cost.

A team of Canadian scientists spent years trying to come up with a "gold standard" for the cost of getting a new drug to market, but the result was baffling. They found 29 studies over the past 10 years that estimated costs ranging from $161 million to $1.8 billion, including the cost of actually producing and marketing the product.

That's a huge difference, and the fact is that most drugs fail to get that far. One leading study found that nine out of 10 drugs fail somewhere along the way, so even a billion-dollar investment doesn't guarantee success. And the pharmaceutical industry is heavily dependent on government funding for research institutions because that's where most of the work begins that could eventually lead to new treatments.

Much of that work is basic research -- just trying to understand disease, not necessarily treat it -- but it is a critical element in the pharmaceutical pipeline. One study estimated that more than half of the drugs begin first in universities and institutions supported by government grants.

"We need the federal government to support the kind of research that industry may be less likely to support during those early stages of discovery," Jagsi said. The reward may not be immediate, she added, "but it can have dramatic, long-term downstream effects."

It may even help stem a reverse-brain-drain, so we won't have to watch promising young scientists like Carulli pack up her bags.

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