Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The National Institutes for Health (NIH) has supported public health law research, but not to the extent necessary to timely evaluate laws affecting the public’s health, according to a new study published today in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice.

The proportion of funding represented only 0.25 percent of the 2014 NIH budget, up from 0.08 percent at the beginning of the study period in 1985.

These percentages equate to about $17.6 million between 1985-1999, and nearly $261 million between 2010-2014. By comparison, NIH’s total grant funding in 2010-2014 was almost $105 billion.

The researchers, from CPHLR and ÜberResearch in Cambridge, Mass., examined trends in funding according to institute and topic area across nearly 7,500 NIH grants funded between 1985 and 2014.

“We know that timely, rigorous evaluations of how laws influence health are key to shaping evidence-based policy. We wanted to know the extent to which our nation’s leading funder of health research — the National Institutes of Health — supports this kind of work,” said lead author Jennifer K. Ibrahim, PhD, MPH, associate director of the Temple University Center for Public Health Law Research (CPHLR) and associate dean of research at the Temple University College of Public Health.

The study finds that NIH funded 510 individual research grants for public health law research (PHLR) that empirically examined health law policymaking, the implementation of health laws, or the health effects of laws or enforcement and implementation practices. 

The top agencies funding PHLR were roughly consistent over the 29-year study period:

  1. National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA): 145 grants
  2. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA): 105 grants
  3. National Cancer Institute: 81 grants
  4. Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development: 68 grants
  5. National Institute of Mental Health: 42 grants

The most common focus areas for funding mirror the top funding agencies’ agendas and the most pressing public health issues during that time, including: alcohol, drugs, environmental health, HIV/AIDS, mental health, obesity, social disparities, tobacco and transportation.

“NIH and other funders are and could continue to be indispensable in helping policymakers, health practitioners, and the public understand how law can affect public health, especially during a time when public health resources are in decline,” Ibrahim explained. “We are heartened that the funding seems to steadily increase, but without improved strategies from NIH, legal action affecting the population will continue to go unevaluated for years.”

The authors also note that funding is an important driver for continuing to build the field of public health law research, and suggest that educational initiatives and a growth in PHLR training programs could also continue to support researchers who evaluate the effects of law on PHLR and other health areas.

Watch a brief video conversation between authors Jennifer Ibrahim and Scott Burris.