A new study makes a strong case for the importance of government support for basic research: Federally funded studies contributed to the science that underlies every one of the 210 new drugs approved between 2010 and 2016.

Researchers at Bentley University scoured millions of research papers for mentions of those 210 new molecular entities, or NMEs, as well as studies on their molecular targets. Then, they looked to see which of those studies had received any funding from the National Institutes of Health.

The authors say the study, published Monday in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to capture the full scope of public funding behind FDA-approved drugs, both directly and indirectly. They also say it points to the need for continued federal funding for basic science — which the Trump administration has previously suggested slashing. 


“Knowing the scale of the investment in the basic science leading to new medicines is critical to ensuring that there is adequate funding for a robust pipeline of new cures in the future,” said Dr. Fred Ledley, one of the study’s authors and a Bentley University researcher who studies the intersection of science and industry. 

Here’s a look at the findings:

The NIH chipped in billions in research funding

More than $100 billion in NIH funding went toward research that contributed, either directly or indirectly, to the 210 drugs approved between 2010 and 2016. That’s roughly 20 percent of NIH spending since 2000.

And of those 210 drugs, 84 were first-in-class drugs, meaning they treat disease through novel mechanisms or molecular targets. More than $64 billion in NIH funding was poured into research that ultimately contributed to the development of those drugs.

“First-in-class drugs are of particular importance, since they represent significant innovations arising from basic research to identify new drug targets,” Ledley said. 

The study also measured NIH contributions by funding years, which is calculated by multiplying the number of projects times the number of years they’re funded.

Megan Thielking/STAT Source:Contribution of NIH funding to new drug
approvals 2010–2016. PNAS.

The bulk of funding was for basic science

More than 90 percent of the publications were related to the biological targets of the drugs, not the drugs themselves. The authors of the new research say that shows that NIH funding for basic science complements industry research and drug development, which is mainly focused on applied science. 

Megan Thielking/STAT Source:Contribution of NIH funding to new drug
approvals 2010–2016. PNAS.

The most common source of NIH funding was an R01 grant

The R01 grant — which supports health-related research — was by far the most common kind of grant that funded science that supported the 210 new drugs approved between 2010 and 2016.  The agency has given out nearly 119,000 R01 grants related to those drugs.

Megan Thielking/STAT Source:Contribution of NIH funding to new drug
approvals 2010–2016. PNAS.

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  • Good article Megan. I would be interested in a follow-up story on the 210 new drugs including what pharma co. used the taxpayer-funded research to develop new therapeutic for what conditions; what was the $ value of the tax-payer research, what patent protection did they received and what price did they establish for the new drugs. I would also be interested in learning where academic or medical institutions and/or their researchers personally benefited from selling the tax-payer research. And, learning if tax funded research grants include a return on equity provisions that allow for the reinvestment of capital obtained from successful research into funding more research grants. Thanks for your consideration.

  • The NIH is a national treasure. Academia is the major beneficiary, and rightly so.
    The primary incentive in academia is “productivity”,still largely meaning publications.
    The commercial realm operates with different incentives, obviously.
    And obviously, there are egregious pricing schemes which are shameful ( think EpiPen).
    It’s messy, but only in theory is academia good at commercialization. Drug companies aren’t inclined toward nor are they typically geared toward fundamental research.
    Would more of one and less of the other be an improvement? There are way too many variables for me to even think of guessing.

  • Two questions that seem appropriate are:
    1) Other than the existence and use of the drugs for citizens, did the federal government receive anything in return for this investment (such as the return if the initial investment)?
    2) Was the investment in such drugs the result of any advocacy on Capitol Hill or within the the agency level and by whom?

    • The federal government received billions in tax revenue from the pharmaceutical industry and those employed by that industry.

      Typically, a decision by NIH to fund or not fund a specific project is not driven by advocacy on Capitol Hill or external groups acting on NIH. Of course, the overall NIH budget is subject to innumerable political pressures.

  • What was the mantra?
    High prices are necessary for drug innovation brought to you by private companies.
    More like, socialist research is

    • …and what does the public receive for its investment in basic research that leads to breakthrough drugs? Unaffordable drugs produced by the financialized pharmaceutical industry and the medical-industrial complex.

    • What does the public receive for its investment in basic research that leads to breakthrough drugs? The public gets to live longer, healthier lives! For example, age-adjusted death rates for heart disease fell from 520.4 deaths per 100,000 Americans in 1969 to 169.1 in 2013. Stroke deaths dropped from 156.8 per 100,000 Americans to 36. Much of this decrease is due to improved pharmacotherapy for high blood pressure, cholesterol and excessive clotting. I, like many Americans, take generic prescription medications to keep my blood pressure and cholesterol in check. Yes, many branded prescription medications are expensive. But, eventually the patent protections expire and these drugs typically get cheaper. In my case, my insurer has decided it is cheaper to give me generic prescription drugs for free than to pay for my hospitalization in the case of a heart attack or stroke

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