Friday, February 22, 2013

Why should you contact congress today to save biomedical research?

Basic science research is near and dear to my heart for many reasons.  I spent nearly 7 years of my blood, sweat, and tears, in training to be a research scientist. For this reason, I wanted to share a little more of my experience, to put a face to this mysterious world of white lab coats (or so you think!), and provide tangible reasons why basic science research is so very important to things we care deeply about - solutions for allergic conditions among many others.

Undoubtedly, many of you in the allergy community have seen the urgent requests by organizations like the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America to contact your congressmen and women to argue against the dire budgetary cuts facing biomedical research.  If nothing is done, the ax, known as the sequestration, is set to come down hard on March 1.  Here is a nice summary by ABC news for what the sequester is - angry yet?  Oh, and by the way, it will spill over to affect every crevice of the world economy, not just US biomedical research.  Essentially, our leaders in Washington are currently engaged in a self-imposed game of kick the can.  Do we have a debt problem?  Undoubtedly.  Must something be done about it?  Absolutely.  Is the sequester the correct solution to the debt problem?  Most economists and politicians on both sides of the aisle adamantly cry, no.

By Michael Ramirez, at GoComics.
With such a big debt problem, why should something so near and dear to my heart, biomedical research, be saved from the chopping block?  After all, it seems like every government program is somebody's favorite.  A recent analysis by the US Department of Commerce confirms that one of the three pillars of our nation's affluence has been government-funded research ( with the other two pillars being investments in education and infrastructure).  Are you reading this blog today on the internet (dumb question, I know)?  It was supported by government-funded research. The return on investment for the US economy has been enormous.
Federally supported research laid the groundwork for the integrated circuit and the subsequent computer industry; the Internet; and advances in chemicals, agriculture, and medical science.  Millions of workers can trace their industries and companies back to technological breakthroughs funded by the government.
So how about the biomedical research arm of government-funded research?
NIH (National Institutes of Health) grants pay for most of the basic research in universities and laboratories across the country. That backing has led to practically every major U.S. medical breakthrough since World War II (emphasis mine). Private companies typically won’t invest in such research because it doesn’t promise quick profits.  -Robert McCartney, The Washington Post
Thus, there is a vital role for government-backed research in our economy.  The discoveries in our universities provide private companies with the tools they need to turn these discoveries into profit-driven solutions to many of the problems facing humanity (and boy, do we have many!).  President Barack Obama highlighted just one of the many projects funded by public funds through the NIH, the human genome project, in his most recent State of the Union Address: 
"Every dollar the government invested to map the human genome returned $140 to the economy."
And, I would argue that we are only beginning to see the return on investment from the human genome project!

Here's the thing.  I'm not sure that most people understand what this basic science research stuff is all about.  Unless you are a researcher or know someone who is, I'm guessing you have visions of sterile, shiny white lab caves with geeky scientists adorned in white lab coats (See "how my friends see me" below)?

Science students..

Perhaps there is a little truth in all six of those panels...  In reality, though, unless something in the lab is truly dangerous or sterile conditions are needed, scientists generally don't wear white lab coats.  The thing is, if you take away the white lab coat, people won't know that we're scientists, so the cycle of photo-ops for scientists (myself included) involves a white lab coat and the public perception of scientists continues.  The non-white lab coat reality of science is captured in a famous quote by Thomas Edison,

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration” with the occasional falling asleep over dense science articles/textsIt's amazing how sometimes a little sleep is all you need to solve what seems to be the insolvable!

I recently put out a request on my Facebook page, "What is the first thing that comes to mind when you think of a scientist?"  Henry Ehrlich of Asthma Allergies Children responded by saying, " I'm not a scientist but I follow science and believe that at its best, science tells the best stories. The best science is done by those who follow the evidence. At its worst, science follows self interest."  I truly loved this feedback and as a scientist, I could not have more eloquently captured what it means to be a scientist.  (Side note:  I highly recommend checking out Asthma Allergies Children - a thorough, easy to understand, evidence-backed web-resource for parents, allergy sufferers, and experts alike.)

The thing is, behind discoveries, whether Nobel-worthy or just another brick in our knowledge building house, lie a back end story of curious individuals following the evidence and occasionally dreaming of new possibilities.  Most of these individuals, myself included, are funded by an investment, for all of us, by all of us, through our tax dollars!  Most scientists are average people (the typical post-PhD university researcher earns ~$40,0000/year) following the evidence with many more day-to-day failures than successes.  It personally took me nearly 7 years to complete a PhD in neuroscience because of what appeared at first to be tragic failure after failure in my lab experiments.  By following my own evidence trail of "failure," however, I made a small, but unexpected finding within my own field of neuroscience that may translate to a new way of thinking about an underlying cause of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).  You better believe that I am proud that maybe something I have discovered could someday make a difference in preventing SIDS.  You don't hear about "small" stories like mine, though, because it usually takes thousands of other scientists failing more often than succeeding, to make true progress toward understanding and solving large problems - e.g. SIDS, allergies, asthma, etc.  The scientists that make the most memorable discoveries and win Nobel prizes (usually the lucky ones, who also happen to be really good!), rely on thousands of us (good, but not so lucky scientists?), taking all kinds of tiny two steps forward and one step back.  These steps are not possible without investments.  Government-funded research, although not a perfect system by any means, allows incremental building of our knowledge base, without a direct profit-driven motive.  It is expected that this knowledge will be shared with all who desire it and not shrouded in secrecy. 

One of my favorite stories in scientific discovery is the story behind green fluorescent protein (GFP), the protein that makes a certain kind of jelly fish glow green!  It seems unimaginable that the scientist who first isolated the protein would have ever envisioned that one day it would be one of the most useful tools in all of biological science/medicine and earn a Nobel prize in 2008.  There is a sad back end story, though.  Scientific discoveries are never the work of one individual.  It turns out that a key scientist, who did not receive the Nobel prize despite his crucial work in making GFP the tool that it is today, is no longer in science due to a lack of science funding.  He accepted a job driving a shuttle bus for a car dealership in order to support his family.   Sadly, more and more of our best scientifically trained minds will face the same dilemma - fight for limited resources to stay in science or do whatever it takes to pay the bills.  What a waste of investments already made.  If the sequester happens, the NIH is estimated to lose $1.6 BILLION dollars just this year and the fall-out - a predicted 20,000 jobs in the university/research sector.  We have already felt the effects of half of all grant proposals being funded compared to ten years ago, and this is before the $1.6 billion cut in funding.  I am convinced that without this investment, the US will fall behind and have a lasting, negative impact that delays by many years, a cure for things like allergic disorders.

What can we do?
Contact your congressmen and women.  This issue is SO much larger than just biomedical research.  Become educated on what a reasonable solution to our budgetary woes may be.  Urge Congress not to drastically cut basic science research - a pillar of the US economy.  Take away the "pillars" and what happens to the building?  It does not take a scientist to figure this one out. 

Contact made easy through the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America 
They have already done the "writing" for you!  Although, I strongly believe more personalized letters or phone calls may make an impact if you do have the time.


  1. Very informative post!

    In case anyone's wondering, the process is very easy! I made the call the other day and it took less than 5 minutes.

  2. What an interesting post! I had no idea how the sequestration would affect allergy research. I always learn so much from your posts :) Thanks for putting it all together! Going to share with my facebook readers! Have a great day!
    ~Rebecca @ Pure and Peanut Free

    1. Thanks so much, Rebecca! Likewise for your posts :) Happy Monday to you, too.