People often drop by our office in Washington. We get visits from folks who are in town from Massachusetts for a convention or business trip or vacation. School groups and families on spring break come by. Some people come to talk about a particular issue they care deeply about — the oceans, human trafficking, music education. Some people just want to say hello and stick a pin on the Massachusetts map next to their hometown.
When I can, I have an open house. Visitors form a rough line. We shake hands, they tell me a little about their issues or themselves, and we usually take a picture together. (We’ve done some killer selfies.)
At one of these gatherings, a nice couple stood first in line, holding hands. The guy was sturdy and about my height, with close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair. As I stretched out my hand, his face lit up with a broad smile. He wore a dark suit and a nice purple shirt and tie, but what caught me were his eyes — bright and engaged and completely locked on mine.
“Hi, Senator,” he began. “I’m Mike, from Douglas, Massachusetts, and I have Alzheimer’s. Early-onset — I’m fifty-five. Soon, I will have forgotten this conversation. I will have forgotten everything. You. My children. My wife.”
His wife stood quietly as he paused, searching for words.
Finally he said, “Everything I know will be taken from me.”
That was all it took. My eyes filled with tears, and I held my breath. How does anyone deal with that future? For an instant, the faces of those I loved flitted across my mind. My grandchildren. My husband, Bruce. My brothers. All those who had already died. Daddy. Mother. Aunt Bee. Our beloved dog Otis. Who would I be if I forgot them?
Before I could recover enough to speak, Mike bounded on: “I will have forgotten, so I’m here today, while I can remember. I’m here to ask you to fight for more funding for research on Alzheimer’s. Please. I’m going to forget, so I need you to remember.”
I’d walked into that room with my mind on some annoying paperwork, thinking ahead to my next meeting, and Mike had stopped me cold. His story was like a spear thrust between my ribs, reminding me that everything we do in Washington matters to real people — people who never planned to ask for help but who needed it right now.
Alzheimer’s disease offers the perfect example of how foolish it is to shortchange investments in research. In 2016 alone, Americans spent a collective $236 billion caring for people with Alzheimer’s. That’s $236 billion just for care: All that money didn’t delay the advance of the illness by a single day. And we will keep on spending these astronomical sums year after year; in fact, the amount will continue to grow, so much so that by 2050, Alzheimer’s could bankrupt Medicare.
We know that this financial tsunami is coming, and we’ve still got time to do something about it. So how much does the National Institutes of Health allocate to Alzheimer’s research? In 2016, the amount spent on research was less than one half of 1 percent of the money spent on care. The NIH isn’t heartless or stupid — it just doesn’t have enough funding. Even as the population ages and the number of diagnoses increases, Congress continues to cut research dollars. Medical research at the NIH now receives 20 percent less funding than just 10 years ago.***
And Alzheimer’s isn’t the only pressing medical concern. Think about other diseases on the cusp of scientific breakthroughs, like diabetes, heart disease, breast cancer, and HIV. Think about kids with life-threatening allergies or autism. Think about people with ALS, trapped in a nonresponsive body until they suffocate. Think about people addicted to opioids and people in chronic pain. Think about how a single medical breakthrough could give new life to hundreds of thousands of people.
I get worked up over this. But the way I figure it, we should all be worked up. It isn’t just medical research. If our government had spent the same proportion of its 2016 budget on research as it did back in the mid-1960s, we would have devoted an additional $162 billion to basic research in just one year. That would more than quintuple the budget for the NIH and the National Science Foundation combined. Five times the funding. Think of the additional scientists and laboratories that would have been working hard to solve problems. Can you imagine how much further along we’d be on clean energy development or disease-resistant crops or cheap ways to turn sea water into fresh drinking water? And if we made progress on those three fronts alone, just think how much money we could save and how much better off our people and our planet would be.
A large majority of Americans agree that we should increase the money we spend on research. If we can’t come together as a country and make this happen — if we can’t, at the very least, double the tiny fraction of our federal budget that we invest in basic research — then what kind of future do we believe in?
*** AUTHOR’S ADDENDUM: In March, President Trump proposed a massive $5.8 billion cut to the NIH. Last year, Massachusetts hospitals, universities, and businesses received more than $2.5 billion in NIH funding.