More Scientists, More Money, More New Drugs…but Little Progress in Life Expectancy

Thursday, August 20, 2015
(graphic: Steve Straehley, AllGov)

More and more money is being spent in the United States on health, creating more positions for scientists and developing more new drugs. But these investments are not adding up to noticeable increases in life expectancy.


Arturo Casadevall and Anthony Bowen, researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, say in a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that the nation has witnessed a diminished return on its investments over the past 50 years on biomedical research when it comes increasing human lifespans.


Since 1965, the U.S. has had a nine-fold increase in the number of scientists, while the National Institutes of Health budget has expanded four-fold. The rate of new drugs hitting the market has not been as strong, but the number has doubled during this span. But life expectancy gains have remained constant at about two months per year, Hopkins reported.


“There is something wrong in the process, but there are no simple answers,” Bowen said. “It may be a confluence of factors that are causing us not to be getting more bang for our buck.”


The researchers cited several possible factors: too much regulation on research; the difficulty of finding cures for complex diseases like Alzheimer’s; and “perverse” incentives for researchers to produce questionable research so they can get published in journals. According to Hopkins, one study estimated that more than $28 billion is spent each year in the United States on preclinical research that can’t be reproduced and that these studies comprise 50% of the literature.


“Scientists, regulators and citizens need to take a hard look at the scientific enterprise and see which are problems that can be resolved,” co-researcher Arturo Casadevall said. “We need a system with rigor, reproducibility and integrity, and we need to find a way to get there as soon as we can.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Return on Investment Slipping in Biomedical Research (Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health)

Expectation of Life at Birth, 1970 to 2008, and Projections, 2010 to 2020 (U.S. Census Bureau) (pdf)


harley 8 years ago
The various reasons may contribute. But I wonder if the underlying reason might be that, unlike manufacturing and industries generally, medical science didn't get to the "low hanging fruit" until just 60 or 70s years ago. Not that many decades ago we didn't understand what caused infections and many other biological mechanisms. Once we finally figured that these basics our life-expectancy went way up, but now we're tackling the truly complex biology and chemistry issues that make for more incremental increase in our life expectancy. We went from people dying in their 40s on a regular basis to people living into their 80s rather within a short span of time, and now maybe we're reaching the outer edges of being able to add to life span because the science of it all is so complex. Also, the article doesn't deal with the issue of whether or not all of the extra scientists and medical advances are bent more toward quality of life now, instead of only increasing life span. Not a scientist, just wonder if this is not necessarily indicative of waste or greed by science and Big Pharma (no fan of Big Pharma, but maybe it can't be blamed for everything as we seem inclined to do).

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