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The federal government spends tens of billions of dollars on medical research every year. How do they decide which diseases get these research dollars?

You might think that, in general, they’d devote the most money to the diseases that cause the most suffering. Of course “suffering” is difficult to measure objectively. How does John’s pain compare to Fred’s blindness? But a plausible measure of how much suffering a disease causes is to look at the number of people who die from it. This isn’t entirely fair: Some diseases don’t kill people but cause other forms of suffering, like paralysis or blindness. So it’s not the definitive measurement, but it’s a usefull yardstick, and can be objectively measured.

So here I list the fifteen diseases that receive the most federal funding, as reported by the National Institute of Health. I am only including diseased for which the NIH lists the number of people who died from that cause. This excludes research in things like “genetics” that are not diseases at all; non-fatal diseases, including most mental illness; and diseases for which statistics are not available.

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For each disease, I show the amount of federal research money and the number of deaths. Then I divide research spending by the number of deaths to get the dollars spent for each person who died from this disease. You may find the results interesting.

Disease Federal research spending (millions) (2016) Deaths (2014) Dollars/death
Cancer $5,652 647,318 $8,731
HIV/AIDS 3,000 8,619 348,068
Cardiovascular 2,072 1,413,654 1,466
Diabetes 1,044 245,016 4,261
Obesity 931 37,548 24,795
Alzheimer’s Disease 910 115,766 7,861
Liver Disease 642 121,243 5,295
Perinatal Conditions 578 15,458 37,392
Alcoholism 494 60,442 8,173
Depression 406 14,992 27,081
Atherosclerosis 402 33,892 11,861
Pneumonia & Influenza 401 159,019 2,522
Stroke 300 224,161 1,338
Asthma 289 10,022 28,837
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For those who are more visually oriented, here’s a graph showing the top 10 (15 was a little cluttered):


Source: National Institute of Health, “Categorical Spending”,

Note that this list includes categories and sub-categories, for example it lists “cancer”, and then many individual types of cancer. Many research projects are included in more than one category.


The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and are not not necessarily either shared or endorsed by


I'm a software developer by profession. I've published four books -- one on database design and three about the Bible. I've contributed chapters to textbooks on criminology, economics, and women's rights. I've published magazine articles on software development, the Christian view of homosexuality, and creation theory. I'm married and between us we have six children from previous marriages. (In two colors!) I could share further credentials but I think if what I write doesn't stand on its own, the credentials don't matter. I could share further personal details but that would be boring.


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