Biden’s grand plan: ‘Blue Sky’ research to solve the biggest health problems

“Follow the science” was a term we became all too familiar with during the Covid pandemic. But it appears that the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden is taking that concept to a whole new level. Biden has proposed a $9 billion increase in funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), of which $6.5 billion will be earmarked for a new funding institute to be called ARPA-H (Advanced Research Projects Agency – Health).

The new health agency’s mission will be to tackle “big issues” in health, such as chronic problems and issues through visionary “blue sky” thinking. The agency’s mission will be similar to DARPA’s, which was to innovate high-risk, high-reward projects in the defense arena. Among the things DARPA came up with, it will be remembered, were the internet, GPS, and the computer mouse. 

Those innovations were the result of researchers’ exploring new ideas and technologies – “blue sky” research without a clear or specific goal. Often, solving big problems requires thinking outside the box. Instead of concentrating on finding solutions for a specific problem, like prostate cancer, for example, this approach allows researchers to throw out ideas and seek threads and trails that can lead to solutions. 

While the new funding is welcome, what’s even more important is how that money will be spent. Besides sponsoring projects with specific goals expected to result in quantifiable results, the agencies will be sponsoring research for projects that will be hard to prove or document theoretical and conceptual research that could become the building blocks of future innovations or inventions, research that will pay off not in a year or two, but a decade or two. 

That’s a marked change from the current performance-based funding sponsored by most institutions, public and private.

In addition, setting up the budget in this way is significant because history has shown that substantial budget increases are usually followed by a wave of new innovations and initial research that leads to new technologies, new drugs, and a better healthcare system. After the 2008 recession, the NIH implemented The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through which $10.4B was awarded to over 21,000 R&D projects. Through this initiative, approximately 50,000 jobs were created or retained with long-term and sustainable positive outcomes for the biomedical community.

Among the focuses of ARPA-H will be translational research, which looks at the transformation of lab work into marketable products. Focusing the additional budget on this stage will lead to more company creation, more jobs, and a greater variety of solutions, devices and drugs. 

Seen in that light, the agendas for the new agencies are certainly ambitious – but Biden is no stranger to open-ended “blue sky” research. According to medical journal The Lancet, Biden “has had a long-standing interest in medical research.” Under the administration of Barack Obama, then-Vice President Biden headed the Cancer Moonshot Task Force, which “brought a new urgency to the Federal government efforts to fight cancer, and forged new partnerships and created new programs and policies.” Significant progress “was made in marshaling resources, both public and private, to “achieve a decade’s worth of progress in five years” in the fight against cancer,” according to a report issued after the 2016 elections.

As with other U.S. government funding initiatives, the agencies will fund projects worldwide – meaning that any and all researchers with great ideas are welcome to apply. The agencies are still in formation, which means that criteria for eligibility have not yet been published, but they will, of course, expect an organized proposal discussing researchers’ ideas and theories, as other government-funded agencies like the NIH require. However, unlike other agencies, researchers won’t have to describe the results they expect to get at the project’s conclusion. It’s a revolutionary change, and it could boost the life science industry. And the fact that is government money doing this will further emphasize the important role of the government and non-dilutive funding as the engine driving this industry forward.

Where the research funded by the open-ended agendas of ARPA-H and ARPA-E will lead is anyone’s guess – and that is exactly the point. The wonders of the future – new ways of treating disease, new ways of utilizing energy, new innovations that could help reduce or eliminate the many woes of the human race – await us. With innovative thinking and an open-ended approach, researchers using funding sponsored by these agencies just may make the discoveries that will make that future real.

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