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The Painful Political Truth About Medical Research

Spending for research on major diseases, such as cancer, heart attacks, and AIDS, arouses intense emotions because life-and-death choices are involved. Unfortunately, the distribution of funds among diseases deviates greatly from the socially most desirable allocation that would give the greatest overall benefit. The money is misallocated, in large part, because well-organized advocacy groups for particular diseases, such as AIDS, use their political clout to get disproportionate shares of the research budget.

Almost all federal spending on medical research in the U.S. is funneled through the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which has a budget of about $12 billion. Diseases that cause a greater number of deaths should, and generally do, get more research dollars. However, the amounts spent per death are very different: NIH funding is over $4,000 per death from cancer, but only a little above $2,000 per death from heart disease--which causes about 50% more deaths than cancer does.