Bowen and Casadevall have a new PNAS paper on this question:
The general public funds the vast majority of biomedical research and is also the major intended beneficiary of biomedical breakthroughs. We show that increasing research investments, resulting in an increasing knowledge base, have not yielded comparative gains in certain health outcomes over the last five decades. We demonstrate that monitoring scientific inputs, outputs, and outcomes can be used to estimate the productivity of the biomedical research enterprise and may be useful in assessing future reforms and policy changes. A wide variety of negative pressures on the scientific enterprise may be contributing to a relative slowing of biomedical therapeutic innovation. Slowed biomedical research outcomes have the potential to undermine confidence in science, with widespread implications for research funding and public health.
Carolyn Johnson summarizes the results of the paper:
Casadevall and graduate student Anthony Bowen used a pretty straightforward technique to try and answer the question. They compared the NIH budget, adjusted for inflation, with the number of new drugs approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the increases in life expectancy in the U.S. population over the same time period.
Those crude health measures didn’t keep pace with the research investment. Funding increased four-fold since 1965, but the number of drugs only doubled. Life expectancy increased steadily, by two months per year.
Johnson also covers some useful responses from the critics. The result also may say more about the NIH than about progress per se. And here is a more optimistic take from Allison Schraeger.