TNR has an excellent article today looking at the much-referenced meme that the U.S.' private health system drives innovation for the whole world. As I've written before, it turns out the meme is simply not true.
The great breakthroughs in the history of medicine, from the development of the polio vaccine to the identification of cancer-killing agents, did not take place because a for-profit company saw an opportunity and invested heavily in research. They happened because of scientists toiling in academic settings. "The nice thing about people like me in universities is that the great majority are not motivated by profit," says Cynthia Kenyon, a renowned cancer researcher at the University of California at San Francisco. "If we were, we wouldn't be here." And, while the United States may be the world leader in this sort of research, that's probably not--as critics of universal coverage frequently claim--because of our private insurance system. If anything, it's because of the federal government.Private companies take this publicly-funded innovation and figure out ways to make money from it, not how to innovate it further. Go read the whole thing.
The single biggest source of medical research funding, not just in the United States but in the entire world, is the National Institutes of Health (NIH): Last year, it spent more than $28 billion on research, accounting for about one-third of the total dollars spent on medical research and development in this country (and half the money spent at universities). The majority of that money pays for the kind of basic research that might someday unlock cures for killer diseases like Alzheimer's, aids, and cancer. No other country has an institution that matches the NIH in scale. And that is probably the primary explanation for why so many of the intellectual breakthroughs in medical science happen here.
There's no reason why this has to change under universal health insurance. NIH has its own independent funding stream.