The field of human genomics has risen from inauspicious beginnings to become an economic powerhouse, and continues to increase our understanding of human health and how to cure diseases.
When it comes to driving economic growth, science funding is a good bet. That’s the upshot of a new report commissioned by the American Society of Human Genetics, which found that every dollar invested in human genetics and genomics by the U.S. government has yielded a return of $4.75 in federal tax revenues.
That result could spur increased interest in other science funding, such as a bill currently under consideration in the Senate. Known as the Endless Frontier Act, the legislation would allocate about $120 billion to the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, and other science-related agencies to beef up the country’s ability to innovate in science and technology.
According to the new economic report, federal funding for human genetics and genomics research hit $3.3 billion in 2019, with most of that money coming from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The human genetics and genomics field supports more than 850,000 jobs in the U.S. The report estimates the total economic impact of this field to be $265 billion in 2019 alone. For comparison, the entire field of genetics and genomics — a much broader field than just the human-focused science covered in this report — was valued at just $67 billion in 2010.
The international Human Genome Project, partially funded by the NIH and largely spurred by U.S. government efforts, wrapped up in the early 2000s. Since then many have questioned the scientific, clinical, and broader impacts of the $2.7 billion U.S. government investment in that massive effort. Now, it seems the long-term benefits are coming into focus.
The report looked at several areas where the impact of human genetics and genomics work is important, even beyond economic growth factors. These include:
- Discovery science: Mining population-scale data sets to learn more about human biology and the genetic mechanisms of disease
- Genetic testing: Identifying an individual’s risk for developing a disease (such as hereditary cancer testing) or diagnosing an active illness
- Drug development and selection: Creating new therapies based on genetic data and determining which treatment is most likely to work for each patient
- Gene editing: Creating gene therapies or otherwise altering a person’s genes to treat a disease
- Microbiome: Understanding how the microbes that live in and on us affect our health
- Environmental genomics: Studying how environmental factors influence our genetic activity and wellness
One of the reasons human genomics R&D has been such a driver of economic growth is its virtuous information cycle and broad commitment to publicly-shared data. Plummeting technology costs have made it possible for researchers to generate extremely large data sets. As more and more of these large-scale studies are completed and made publicly available, scientists can mine those troves of data with AI and other analysis tools to extract new insights into how genetic mechanisms function, interact, and go awry. The outputs from that process lead to new genetic tests, new therapies, new clinical trials — as well as follow-up studies using rapidly advancing technology platforms to come up with a whole new set of insights.
In other words, we are only just beginning to see the impact of human genomics research in our economy and on our health.