The U.S. was founded on the radical notion that by independently pursuing our dreams we can build a future that's better for everyone. That's why it's always been home to great thinkers and doers, risk-takers and entrepreneurs--people who insist on questioning the status quo and finding a better path forward. That insistence, individual and collective, has made this country a world leader in many fields, including science and technology.
Yet when it comes to the vast enterprise of biomedical research, there's room to question how well the system we've created serves our needs. Do we put enough emphasis on producing new therapies and cures for disease? Are we making progress fast enough in the eyes of the millions touched by illness or injury?
Over $100 billion is spent on biomedical research each year. Roughly a third of that money goes toward expanding our understanding of the basic mechanisms of life. That seems reasonable: Basic research is vital to advancement over the long haul. The other two-thirds goes to the business end of things, where venture capitalists and the pharmaceutical industry are mostly concerned with making a profit for their shareholders.
To patients observing from the sidelines, it can feel--on our cynical days--as if the lion's share of today's commercial investment focuses on tweaking innovations from a decade ago.
So we burn through this pile of cash, yet we're left with a major problem: Who's investing in innovation right now? Only a minuscule fraction of our current efforts are strategically allocated to converting basic discoveries into truly new therapies. This is a higher-risk and higher-reward investment arena--for my money, a classic challenge for American ingenuity. Bold action today will pay off for years to come in the form of improved, practical treatments with a chance to benefit people living with disease now.
I'm certain we can achieve tangible results faster. In fact, that's the premise on which I set up my foundation, where we come to work every day to accelerate the best ideas on their path from the labs to the patients. Our goal is to improve the daily lives of people with Parkinson's disease today and find a cure within the decade. But this is a complex problem that requires a better strategy than throwing billions more dollars at biomedical research and hoping for the best.
It's time for a broad-based paradigm shift, one that reflects what America is all about: rapid innovation toward practical results that we can feel in our everyday lives. The good news: This actually isn't a question of throwing more money at the problem. (Not hitting up the taxpayers for more money--how's that for a radical notion?) It is a question of deploying our financial, scientific and intellectual capital differently, creatively and urgently and designing new solutions to complex challenges. Where we go from here is up to all of us.
Through our experience at the foundation, we know firsthand that America is home not only to many of the most talented and innovative people in the world, but also to some of its most generous. We must figure out how to hold onto the best of what we have--infrastructure and resources that attract the best and brightest scientists; the benefits that accrue from basic research--while pushing ourselves to go still further. Let's think big about new ways to stimulate innovation and seed the drug development pipeline with the next generation of therapies assuring investors of transformative results--high returns on financial capital, yes, but also on human health.
It may be a tall order, but I'm optimistic. When we work together and use our talents and resources for the collective good, everything is possible. To me, that's the core of the American Dream.
Michael J. Fox, the actor, established The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. He is delivering a keynote lecture on translational research today at the Biotechnology Industry Organization International Convention in Boston.