After the March for Science, the fight must go on
O ver the last century, humankind has experienced a veritable revolution in biomedical discovery, which in turn has transformed human health.
The advent of antibiotics to eradicate infections, the development of vaccines to prevent them, and the discovery of drugs to treat previously fatal conditions are but a few of the past century’s momentous achievements in science. These achievements, and others, have added some 30 years to our life expectancy, reduced infant mortality by more than 90 percent, and made many maladies treatable, curable, or forgotten.
Today, we are at the dawn of a new era in medicine — one that promises to redefine human health by unraveling conditions as intractable as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, as formidable as schizophrenia and cancer.
New advances in gene editing, synthetic biology, and tissue engineering — once the stuff of science fiction — may soon allow us to grow healthy tissues and organs from our own cells.
Even though these marvels are within our reach, they may never come to pass, because we are standing on the edge of a precipice: the proposed slashing of $5.8 billion from the National Institutes of Health’s $32 billion budget.
These cuts would effectively bring to a screeching halt the scientific and medical achievements made over the last century and deal a potentially mortal wound to our ability to achieve new medical breakthroughs.
The proposal is a textbook example of being penny-wise and pound-foolish.
Here is why:
The NIH funding cuts would set in motion the unraveling of the biomedical enterprise by cutting off vital research dollars from critical research. The human toll of doing so would reverberate long into the future.
These cuts would effectively wipe out a generation of brilliant young scientists just starting their careers in academia, while dissuading others from entering the field altogether.
Loss of federal research dollars would shock the economy, both in Massachusetts and throughout the country.
The proposed budget would impede transnational efforts to monitor brewing epidemics and conduct disease surveillance.
Last, but not least, these cuts go against this nation’s ideals. We are a people who believe in progress, the pursuit of discovery, and making the world better for humanity.
Millions of Americans, and billions of people around the globe, benefit from life-saving, life-sustaining, or life-altering therapies made possible by federal investment in scientific research.
Basic research, which occupies itself with understanding the building blocks of life — cells, molecules, atoms — would be affected most severely by these cuts. Some of the greatest successes in modern medicine have occurred precisely because of so-called curiosity-driven research.
An investment in understanding fundamental cellular processes in worms and yeast led to new methods to orchestrate gene expression, novel cancer treatments, and Nobel Prizes for H. Robert Horvitz of MIT, Jack Szostak of the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, and Craig Mello of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Research into the ability of jellyfish to glow led to the discovery of green fluorescence protein that has allowed scientists to track gene expression and led to a Nobel Prize for Osamu Shimomura of the BU School of Medicine.
In the last 40 years, NIH-funded research has fueled the discovery of 153 FDA-approved drugs, vaccines, or new indications for older drugs. These include treatments for leukemia, medications to control HIV, and the hepatitis B, human papillomavirus, and Ebola vaccines.
In our state alone, NIH research sparks vibrant economic activity that tops $6 billion a year.
Scientific research is not a niche endeavor. It has a powerful cross-pollinating effect, sparking innovation in fields ranging from imaging technology to space exploration. Biomedical research is at the very core of our country’s scientific, technological, and economic stature. A newly published report forecasts that, by 2020, China will overtake the United States in research spending. How did we get here?
Although the proposed NIH cuts have dominated the public’s attention in the last few months, they are only the most visible symptom of an insidious process that started long ago. For decades now, science has been under attack — a relentless assault that, like a chronic but ultimately fatal condition, is at last taking its toll.
First, there were lobbyists for the tobacco industry who fiercely questioned the existence of any link between cigarette smoking and cancer. Then came the antivaccine movement, then those who questioned evolution, then the climate change deniers. Regardless of their pet cause, merchants of doubt — special interests, demagogues — sowed the seeds of uncertainty.
The common thread? An erosion of the public trust in science.
The result? A schism in our society far deeper than any political divide, a widening rift between critical thinking and alternative facts.
Now, the looming budget cuts have catalyzed a national movement to defend science — a promising sign of popular uprising in the face of a gathering threat.
We must harness this energy and ensure that the March for Science on Saturday marks the beginning of closing the rift that got us here in the first place.
As physicians and scientists, we can no longer afford to be isolationist in our work. We must demonstrate that science is not an impenetrable ritual practiced in the ivory towers of academia. Science is a way of thinking more than the accumulation of knowledge. And it’s everywhere.
We must make a sustained effort to engage the public and to make science meaningful, relevant, and captivating. We must capture the imagination of the very people whom our mission benefits and share with them our own enthusiasm for science.
In a few days, the March for Science will be over. The electrifying euphoria will begin to dissipate.
We mustn’t let this happen, for this is the fight for our future.
Karen Antman is dean of Boston University School of Medicine. Harris Berman is dean of Tufts University School of Medicine. George Q. Daley is dean of Harvard Medical School. Terence R. Flotte is dean of University of Massachusetts Medical School.