The US share of global biomedical R&D spending fell to 45% in 2012 from 51% in 2007, while the share held by Asian nations increased from 18% to 24% during the same period, researchers report.

Adjusted for inflation, US biomedical R&D spending fell from $131 billion in 2007 to $119 billion in 2012, while spending by Japan and China increased by $9 billion and $6.4 billion, respectively, says the study, which is reported in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM).

Europe’s share of the global total remained steady at 29% over the period, it adds.

The drop in US spending has been almost entirely due to reduced investment by the industry, including lower levels of support for clinical trials, and that this has been the main factor even though levels of spending by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have also declined, according to the study authors.  

They suggest that the reasons for the decline in industry spending could include the comparatively fewer regulations for companies to deal with when conducting R&D in Asia and that the process there is less expensive. Labour costs are lower, governments may be offering subsidies and the research infrastructure is less bureaucratic than in the US.

Earlier analyses have suggested that the US share of global expenditures were once as high as 80%, while historically, about half of all drugs approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have had some federal funding during the course of their R&D, and the authors warn that boosting US government funding alone may not be sufficient for retaining long-term global R&D leadership.

‘The US has long been a world leader in driving R&D in biomedical science. It’s important to maintain that leadership role because biomedical research has a number of long-term downstream economic benefits, especially around job creation,” says study author Reshma Jagsi, associate professor of radiation oncology at the University of Michigan Health System.

“We were surprised the impact of industry funding was that dramatic, but it’s key to note that government funding is equally important to maintain or grow. Research funded through the NIH helps scientists understand how diseases work – this will happen slower as NIH funding continues to be cut,” adds author Justin Chakma, a venture capital investor with Thomas, McNerney & Partners.

The authors emphasise the need for increased NIH funding coupled with incentives for industry to invest in R&D in the US, and describe the lack of a coordinated national biomedical R&D strategy as “disappointing.