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$2B of NIH funding drives North Carolina research economy

Researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill
UNC Chapel Hill
Researcher at UNC-Chapel Hill

North Carolina researchers were awarded more than $2 billion in National Institutes of Health research grants last year. That's lower than each of the previous two years, but still well ahead of amounts earlier in the decade.

More than half of this total, or $1.26 billion, went to just two universities: Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill. Other academic research universities also took in millions, as did nonprofit groups like RTI International, based in Research Triangle Park.

Grants awarded included $65 million to UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy to establish an Antiviral Drug Discovery Center, which will seek to develop oral treatments to fight pandemic-level viruses like COVID-19. Duke University researchers also won vaccine related awards, as well as new ones to find new cures for rare cancers.

While North Carolina universities compete in sports arenas, especially in March, they form tight collaborations in research. That manifested last year in a deeper collaboration for Alzheimer's research, which includes researchers not just from the behemoth universities, but also the mid-sized research universities around the state.

"We've got some basketball rivalries, but when it comes to scientific collaborations, which is what this is all about, we work very well together," said Colin Duckett, Duke's vice dean for Basic Science. "When I looked at the data, what I saw really was a North Carolina story. I think that what we've got is a very deep bench."

NIH Budget in constant dollars
American Association for the Advancement of Science
National Institutes for Health
NIH Budget in constant dollars

That collaboration builds a virtuous cycle, say advocates for spending taxpayer dollars on basic research. United for Medical Research (UMR) assess the economic impact of NIH research funding and reports that every $1 invested yields $2.64 in new economic activity. In North Carolina, that comes out to nearly $5.3 billion in economic activity and close to 35,000 jobs supported by this research.

Penny Gordon-Larsen, the UNC-Chapel Hill interim vice chancellor for Research, says this research funding has been one of the economic cornerstones for the entire Research Triangle region.

"We've attracted this whole life sciences industry that's now one of the most important industries in the country. Our region has really done that because of those collaborative ties and because of the work that we're doing together.
Penny Gordon-Larsen

"We've attracted this whole life sciences industry that's now one of the most important industries in the country," she said. "Our region has really done that because of those collaborative ties and because of the work that we're doing together."

In the long wake of the Great Recession, federal research funding took a hit that didn't rebound until the middle of last decade, according to NIH data compiled by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and adjusted for inflation.

"The NIH sits at the center of the biomedical innovation ecosystem in the U.S., fueling innovation that keeps us healthy and globally competitive," said UMR President Chris Austin in a news release. "Every dollar invested in the NIH has an exponential effect."

The funding spurs activity that attracts talented people. Gordon-Larsen says these major research programs and centers "draw people in" which elevates the academic value for students. "These research projects have positions for students – undergraduate students and graduate students – who then get placed on those projects as part of their training. … So they get that hands on experience of really digging in to data or interviewing participants or that real world experience."

This cycle benefits not just academia, but the broader economy as well, says Duckett. Universities "are providing the intellectual and academic training that ends up with those people working for those large companies," he said. "As we do well here and as we train our workforce, and as we generate this kind of excitement in North Carolina, what we're also doing is we're becoming a magnet for those companies. And so they want to come and work in North Carolina because that's where the employees are."

Jason deBruyn is WUNC's Supervising Editor for Digital News, a position he took in 2024. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016 as a reporter.
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