Science still needs support

Posted: October 16, 2012

By Mary Woolley

A Nobel Prize is the most widely sought-after and treasured global recognition of our times, and rightly so. The achievements of the laureates, including this year's winners, have had a far-reaching impact on our lives, from discoveries related to stem-cell research to those involving quantum particles.

Yet unlike Olympic medalists, the winners of the prizes for medicine and physiology, physics, and chemistry - respectively, John Gurdon of Britain and Japan's Shinya Yamanaka, Serge Haroche of France and American David Wineland, and Americans Robert Lefkowitz and Brian Kobilka - will not be celebrated by a broad segment of society.

The truth is that three-quarters of Americans have incredible difficulty naming just one living scientist, Nobel laureates included. Whether because of general unfamiliarity with science or the mistaken assumption that science proceeds apace without the need for public recognition or support, this apathy has now extended to our elected officials. And these are the people who will make critical decisions for our nation in the year ahead, many of them based, we hope, on facts, data, and evidence - in other words, based on science.

With few exceptions, political candidates are not talking about their pride in America's accomplishments in science, nor are they telling voters what they will do if elected to assure continued American leadership in the field. It's disturbing.

Research powers our search for cures and preventive measures, and it has the potential to contain out-of-control health-care costs by keeping more of us healthy. A healthy employee is a productive worker; a healthy child won't strain education budgets; a healthy older adult is living independently. But our government seems to have stopped acting as if it's in touch with these verities.

At risk

Research is at risk right now, with across-the-board spending cuts planned for federal agencies next year. The National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other health agencies would face budget cuts of more than 8 percent, which, on top of previous years of flat funding, would mean dropping to funding levels that can't possibly sustain medical innovation to help cure and prevent Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, cancer, Parkinson's disease, and other illnesses.

Do you know anyone who would volunteer to wait even a month longer for a cure? An entrepreneur who would volunteer to wait for better days to start that new biotech business?

We have made significant progress over the years. Deaths from heart disease have decreased 50 percent over the last 40 years, childhood cancer is now a treatable disease, vaccines prevent hospitalizations due to the flu and dangerous flu-related infections. Why would we do anything to delay such progress? Are we afraid to talk about science or afraid to talk about money?

That's the only essential ingredient of continued success that we don't have enough of right now. The talented workforce is ready, willing, and able, although deeply discouraged and thinking of moving to China or other nations where science is on a clear upward trajectory and has been made a high public priority, with strong government funding and policies to match.


Unfortunately, elected officials and political candidates don't seem to have recognized the transformative power of research, or, if they have, they aren't talking about it. Do they support a robust investment in research to combat disease and spur the economy? Do they believe in a stronger commitment to science, technology, engineering, and math education to cultivate the next generation of Nobel laureates?

We simply don't know, since these questions remain largely unanswered by candidates despite the realities of global competitiveness and just plain common sense. Public opinion polls commissioned by Research!America, a nonprofit advocacy alliance, show that a majority of likely voters want candidates to express their views on medical research. Voters consider research a bread-and-butter issue because of the way it affects their quality of life. As the Honorable Paul Rogers (a former member of Congress) has stated, "Without research, there is no hope."

Have elected officials become too numb to the reality that world-class science doesn't happen without a world-class commitment? We must elect candidates who will make science a priority. That should be a no-brainer.

Mary Woolley is the president and CEO of Research!America. This was distributed by McClatchy-Tribune.

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