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How medical research gets funded

We need medical research in order to make progress and discoveries that can lead to better health for our future selves and families, but how is research currently funded?

Medical or biomedical research is primarily funded through three major mechanisms:

  1. Government

  2. Industry

  3. Philanthropy


In the US, the government is one of the largest supporters of biomedical research. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) gives billions of tax dollars to fund biomedical research every year. For 2021, total funding for NIH is set for $42.9 billion.

NIH consists of 27 institutes and centers dedicated to different areas of health and science. Through NIH, researchers can apply for research grants (R- series) depending on the scope and type of research they are pursuing. These grants are highly competitive. Only 20.2% of grant applications were funded in 2018.

Research grants are initially peer-reviewed by another individual working in the area and provided a score that is sent for secondary review by an advisory council. Most researchers do not score high enough to receive funding even after spending months dedicated to a lengthy and tedious grant application process. In 2018, over 80,000 grants applications were denied funding. Every year, about 10% of the NIH grant budget goes to only about 6,000 researchers.

So, what are other avenues of government funding?

The government provides funding through a few other mechanisms, though at a vastly smaller scale than NIH. This includes the military and Department of Defense. US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) spends about $3.5 billion in research every year and is thought to fund riskier projects than traditional funding agencies. Some remaining avenues for government funding include Veterans Affairs which funds its own research as well as some state government and institutionally-funded research.


Industry primarily funds research based on its own profit-driven interests. Industry sponsors the clinical trials necessary to have an investigational product (experimental drug or device) approved by regulatory agencies, including the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in the US. The purpose of this research is to test a product that has been shown to be promising in pre-clinical studies (basic lab, cells, animals, etc.) and determine if it can ultimately be effective in treating, preventing, or curing some disease or health condition in humans.

To be approved by the FDA, the investigational product must complete three human-testing phases:

Phase 1) Safety in healthy persons (small number and very controlled)

Phase 2 ) Safety in persons with a particular health condition (maybe 20-100 patients)

Phase 3) Effectiveness in persons with a particular health condition (1000+ patients)

This is an expensive and time-consuming process. It usually involves dozens of research sites across the world recruiting thousands of patients internationally. The costs are in millions of dollars before a product can be proven to be safe and effective to be marketed to the public.

Industry and researchers can sometimes collaborate to fund research that is not for the purpose of testing an investigational product when their interests align. Whenever working with industry, researchers and institutions need to take special precautions to ensure any conflicts of interest are addressed that may bias the research. The vast majority of research spending by industry, though, is focused on getting drugs and devices to market. Most of the early work of basic and pre-clinical research that led to the discovery of a potentially viable investigational product is often funded through NIH, so both our tax dollars and the industry have valuable roles in the development and testing of new therapies.


Between competitive government grants and selective interests of the industry, researchers have tons of valuable and meaningful medical research that is still left unfunded. This is where philanthropy steps in. The philanthropy sector mostly comprises charities and foundations dedicated to particular causes, such as the American Cancer Society and American Heart Association. Researchers can apply for grants with these organizations. Similar to NIH, these grants have review processes, and funding is usually determined by only a small, selective group of individuals. For most non-profit organizations, donors do not get a choice in selecting specific research to support.

Crowdfunding is a promising new philanthropic platform for funding research. Crowdfunding as a concept has grown in popularity over the last decade through platforms, such as Gofundme and Kickstarter, as a mechanism for raising money through public support. Campaigns on these platforms cover anything from paying medical bills to entrepreneurship.

A few platforms focus crowdfunding on scientific advancement and research projects. Research Lead is a crowdfunding platform that connects individuals with researchers to support medical research. Unlike other science-based crowdfunding platforms, researchers are screened on both their credentials and research methodology to ensure only verified researchers with quality studies are supported. Additionally, a milestone-based grant process allows individuals to not only choose the research but hold researchers accountable. Sponsors receive regular updates as the study progresses.

If you would like to learn more about how you can sponsor research through crowdfunding, visit our main page at

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