‘I have a sense of optimism that I would not have been able to share with you three, four years ago’
National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins and Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) spoke to an auditorium of nearly 300 physicians and researchers at Northwestern about the critical importance of sustaining momentum in medical research funding.
Speaking on the Chicago campus Wednesday, Collins cited a $2 billion increase in research support in fiscal year 2016, which was the NIH’s first significant increase after a decades-long downward trend.
“I have a sense of optimism that I would not have been able to share with you three, four years ago,” Collins said. “We remain hopeful that that will in fact be a trajectory that is sustained in the years to come. Medical research right now is not limited by ideas. It’s not limited by research potential. It’s limited by resources. It’s not limited by talent. We have talent of an amazing sort, and we need to unleash that.”
Introduced by Northwestern President Morton Schapiro and moderated by Sen. Durbin, the panel discussed the pressing need to continue the recent trajectory of increased funding for breakthrough scientific and biomedical research in order to maintain the United States’ standing as the global leader in medical discovery and innovation.
“Nothing makes me prouder than the contributions we make to science and to medicine at Northwestern University,” Schapiro said as he introduced the panel. “The ongoing support from the National Institutes of Health and other funding agencies to keep our labs going – and not just going but flourishing – is a tribute to certain people, to their vision and their perseverance. And two of them are right here today: Francis Collins and Dick Durbin.”
The panel also spoke about the importance of funding data science technology, which can bring together scientists around the world through shared data.
Collins oversees the work of the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world.
“This is not an expenditure, this is an investment,” he said. “America continues to lead the world in biomedical research that advances the cause of human health, that advances our economy. We want to be sure that we don’t lose that momentum, and I’m glad to be able to be here seeing how remarkable that momentum is here in Chicago.”
Panelists included Eric Neilson, MD, Vice President for Medical Affairs and Lewis Landsberg Dean at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, Mitra Dutta, PhD, Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Kenneth Polonsky, MD, Executive Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine.
During a press conference following the panel discussion, Collins addressed the importance of women in biomedical research. Teresa Woodruff, PhD, the Thomas J. Watkins Memorial Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and director of Northwestern’s Center for Reproductive Science, has been a driving force behind a policy shift toward more female inclusion in medical research.
“The percent of participants in clinical trials across the board at NIH is about 54 percent women,” Collins said. “That’s very different than it was 30 years ago. We’ve also made a requirement on researchers who were studying animal models of human disease. They have to study males and females, which often times was not done in the past.”
The discussion in the Lurie Medical Research Hughes Auditorium was just one stop on Collins’ tour of Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Collins also met with representatives from Chicago healthcare incubator MATTER and participated in a tour of Feinberg’s NIH-funded CARDIA lab and clinic, led by Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM, senior associate Dean for Clinical and Translational Research and chair of the Department of Preventive Medicine.
“Science has never been more exciting and more full of potential for medicine than right now,” Collins said as he closed the panel discussion. “We want to make it even more exceptional for each of you by coming up with the ways to steer this ship in the best direction and finding the resources to nurture the dreams you have for making those discoveries that are going to lead to all kinds of advances in human health. Don’t be afraid to try bold things. Be innovative. … And dream big.”
At one point during the panel, Sen. Durbin asked those in the room to raise their hands if they’ve participated in NIH grant-funded research. More than 75 percent of people in the room raised their hand.
“Seeing that is an inspiration,” Durbin said. “They call it the National Institutes of Health, but I call it the National Institutes of Hope, as far as I’m concerned.”