September 16, 2012

Relevance of Scientific Research and Instability of Federal Funding

Several items regarding the federal funding of life science research are worth noting because they illustrate the tensions over how the government funds science and what the public may or may not receive in the form of benefit. As a general matter, the federal government allocates approximately 10% of its discretionary funding to research and development, a percentage that has declined from about 25% in the mid-1990's. One point of contention in science funding debates is that the government funds useless research that appears to have no link to human improvement. That charge resonates with some of the parameters of basic research in molecular biology, where by definition, scientists have used seemingly obscure organisms as models (e.g., fuitfly, yeast, nematode, fish) for studying molecular processes, and the argument for such research has been that such work reveals universal biological processes that apply to humans. Now, in recognition of the fact that wild-card research observations could have great relevance for human benefit (including health), a Golden Goose Award has been established by a coalition of universities, think tanks, and businesseses for the purpose of “highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact.” In a ceremony this week, one of the awards was for the research on the green fluorescent protein from jellyfish - which first explained why some jellyfish glow - but then the isolation of the gene allowed it to be used as a portable flashlight attached to genetic switching molecules, providing a means to track how gene expression occurs in any cell; such a technique has been used in HIV and cancer research. Other awards this week recognized analogous work in radiation physics and material science. So that is all to the good, but such efforts occur against real funding instability for federal science research. In a related but unfortunate linkage, the ongoing federal budget politics have produced a sequestration deal that ended the budget standoff last August but then embedded automatic cuts in federal spending that occur in January 2013. There's no progress in Washington on avoiding such an outcome. As a result, the current projection is for an 8.2 percent cut in federal science funding, with a specific loss of at least $2.5 billion for NIH alone. That would (and already has) greatly impact existing grant programs and plans for upcoming research in biomedicine; e.g., see a Mayo Clinic analysis. All of this is worth remembering as the political season produces a lot of verbiage regarding the criticality of American science, but a peek behind the words reveals mathematical truths that will undermine how much research can get done.

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