As a presidential candidate, Barack Obama promised to strengthen funding and improve coordination for biomedical research. Now, as he nears the end of his eight years in office, Obama's record is mixed.
Obama did sign into law a significant one-time infusion of research funding in the 2009 stimulus bill -- specifically, $10 billion for the National Institutes of Health, more than $8 billion of which went to research with most of the rest going toward construction, facilities and equipment.
However, the basic annual level of biomedical funding today is actually lower than it was before Obama took office, once you take account of inflation.
"The administration generally asked for decent increases most years, but Congress couldn't deliver because of the spending caps they put in place," said Matt Hourihan, director of the research and development budget and policy program at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. These across-the-board spending limits are officially known as sequestration.
Calculated using inflation-adjusted dollars, Hourihan said, funding for the National Institutes of Health in fiscal year 2016 was actually 3.4 percent below what it was in fiscal year 2008.
The impact can be seen in the "success rate" for funding new projects, Hourihan said. In 2008, 21.3 percent of applications were funded, but only 19.2 percent were funded in 2016.
It's worth noting, however, that in December 2016 -- at the very end of his tenure -- Obama signed the 21st Century Cures Act, a medical research bill that, against the odds given today's hyper-polarized congressional environment, passed with overwhelmingly bipartisan support. The House approved the measure, 392-26, while the Senate voted 94-5 in favor.
The 21st Century Cures Act promises $1.8 billion for cancer research funding, in memory of Vice President Joe Biden's son Beau, who died in 2015 from brain cancer. Separately, the bill directs $1.5 billion toward brain research, $1.4 billion for precision medicine, and $1 billion for improving drug treatment, particularly for heroin and opioid addiction. This funding will be allocated over seven years.
As for the other part of the promise -- to "improve the efficiency" of biomedical research "by improving coordination both within government and across government/private/non-profit partnerships" -- the biggest step in this direction remains the creation in 2011 of NIH's National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences. The center's mission is to "speed the delivery of new drugs, diagnostics and medical devices to patients" by developing "innovations to reduce, remove or bypass costly and time-consuming bottlenecks" in the biomedical-research pipeline.
Hourihan said this effort has remained a priority on Obama's watch. "Funding for that center has increased since its creation by over 11 percent," he said.
Overall, biomedical research funding has actually fallen during the Obama years, but the 21st Century Cures Act that Obama recently signed promises a substantial infusion over the next seven years, long after Obama himself is out of office. Meanwhile, the administration has given increasing funding to the main effort to improving coordination on biomedical research between the government and nonprofits. We continue to rate this promise a Compromise.