Opinion: Sequester starving vital research

August 18, 2013


— “The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.”

— Lewis Thomas

The pedigree of human beings, Thomas wrote, probably traces to a single cell fertilized by a lightning bolt as the Earth was cooling. Fortunately, genetic “mistakes” — mutations — eventually made us. But they also have made illnesses. Almost all diseases arise from some combination of environmental exposures and genetic blunders in the working of DNA. Breast cancer is a family of genetic mutations.

The great secret of doctors, wrote Thomas — who was a physician, philosopher and head of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center — “is that most things get better by themselves; most things, in fact, are better in the morning.” But many things require intelligent interventions — cures. So, to see the federal government at its best, and sequester-driven spending cuts at their worst, visit the 322 acres where 25,000 people work for the National Institutes of Health.

This 60th anniversary of the Clinical Center, the NIH’s beating heart, is inspiriting and depressing: Public health is being enhanced — rapidly, yet unnecessarily slowly — by NIH-supported research here, and in hundreds of institutions across the country, into new drugs, devices and treatments. Yet, much research proposed by extraordinarily talented physicians and scientists cannot proceed because the required funding is prevented by the intentional irrationality by which the sequester is administered.

A 2 percent reduction of federal spending would be easily manageable. It has, however, been made deliberately dumb by mandatory administrative rigidities intended to maximize pain in order to weaken resistance to any spending restraint. Spending on basic medical research is being starved as the river of agriculture subsidies rolls on.

For Francis Collins, being the NIH’s director is a daily experience of exhilaration and dismay. In the last 40 years, he says, heart attacks and strokes have declined 60 percent and 70 percent, respectively. Cancer deaths are down 15 percent in 15 years. An AIDS diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Researchers are on the trail of a universal flu vaccine, based on new understandings of the influenza virus and the human immune system. Chemotherapy was invented here — and is being replaced by treatments developed here. Yet the pace of public health advances is, Collins says, being slowed by the sequester.

He entered federal service to oversee decoding the human genome, which he describes as “reading out the instruction book for human beings.” We are, he says, at the dawn of the era of “precision medicine,” of treatments personalized for patients’ genetic makeups.

This will be, Collins believes, “the century of biology.” Other countries have “read our playbook,” seeing how biomedical research can reduce health costs, produce jobs and enhance competitiveness. Meanwhile, America’s great research universities award advanced degrees to young scientists from abroad, and then irrational immigration policy compels them to leave and add value to other countries. And now the sequester discourages and disperses scientific talent.

In the private sector, where investors expect a quick turnaround, it is difficult to find dollars for a 10-year program. The public sector, however, with its different time horizon, can fund for the long term, thereby drawing young scientists into career trajectories and collaborations impossible elsewhere.

Collins is haunted by knowledge that the flow of scientific talent cannot be turned on and off like a faucet. Unfortunately, recent government behavior has damaged the cause of basic science. It has blurred the distinction between fundamental research and technical refinements (often of 19th-century technologies — faster trains, better batteries, longer-lived light bulbs). It has sown confusion about the difference between supporting scientific research and practicing industrial policy with subsidies — often incompetently and sometimes corruptly dispensed — for private corporations oriented to existing markets rather than unimagined applications. And beginning with the indiscriminate and ineffective 2009 stimulus, government has incited indiscriminate hostility to public spending.

NIH scientists seek intensely practical, meaning preventive and therapeutic, things that can save society more than any sequester can. The scientists also know, however, that the enchantment of science is in the phrase “You never know.” You never know where things might lead. Sixty years ago, James Watson and Francis Crick published a paper in the journal Nature describing the double-helix structure of DNA and noting almost laconically that it “suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.” They could not have known that this would lead to Collins’ career, which has led him here to days of dismay about exhilarations postponed.

— George Will is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


jayhawklawrence 4 years, 8 months ago

Rand Paul introduced a bill that would slash funding for government research;

Scientific American: "The National Science Foundation would lose 62 percent of its budget because Paul argues that private industry and the states, not the federal government, should be paying for research. But there’s no evidence that industry wants to foot that bill, and the states are already financially strapped."


Armstrong 4 years, 8 months ago

Enjoy the hope and change you voted for

tomatogrower 4 years, 8 months ago

I thought if research needed to be done, the private sector would pick up on it? That's what they said about the internet. You conservatives are just weird. Do you support government funded research or not? And if you do, are you willing to pay the taxes for it. Good grief, you can't have your cake and eat it too. Something for nothing? That's what you accuse liberals of, but it sure sounds you want all the government services without paying for them.

Paul R Getto 4 years, 8 months ago

We have seriously underfunded basic research for a long time and do so at our collective peril. Some presidents have done so deliberately and distorted the system to satisfy their corporate masters. The rest of the world will be happy to pick up the slack and reap the benefits. The sequester is small potatoes.

tomatogrower 4 years, 8 months ago

The plan was to make Congress do their job, but they didn't. Read your constitution, all of it, not just the 2nd amendment. The House of Representatives is suppose to pass appropriation bills, and the executive branch, the President, is suppose to make recommendations and then spend the money that the House, with finally Senate approval sends to him.

Armstrong 4 years, 8 months ago

I don't think the lead from behind philosophy is working so well for Barry.

jayhawklawrence 4 years, 8 months ago

Your comments were full of disinformation. Why comment on that?

tomatogrower 4 years, 8 months ago

Presidents don't change or make laws, FastEddy.

yourworstnightmare 4 years, 8 months ago

The president does not make laws and pass budgets. Congress does. The president wanted to avoid the sequester. Congressional republicans called it one of the best things to happen in a long time. The GOP refused to craft and pass a budget that would have avoided the sequester.

I agree with Will in this piece, but placing the blame solely at the president's doorstep is foolish.

Will is also wrong about the stimulus. The NIH received a great deal of ARRA funds that allowed vital research to continue and even grow slightly. The end of ARRA and the sequester are really hitting NIH hard.

At least Will acknowledges that government-funded research, with a long perspective and no requirement of a quick pay off, is vital to our country's future.

Sadly, many in the TeaOP would call this socialism and want to do away with government funded research.

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