Grade Point | Perspective
March 25, 2017 at 7:00 AM
The writer is president of New York University.
By Andrew Hamilton
As a rule, it takes a lot to rile up a scientist. A reserved, dispassionate, skeptical demeanor is as much a professional accouterment for us as a stethoscope is for a doctor.
So, when scientists are moved to march on Washington, something has gone awry. And the budget outline released by the White House this month demonstrates what that is – an astonishing set of cuts in America's science enterprise, perhaps most notably in the National Institutes of Health, from which I have received a great deal of my support over the years as an organic chemist.
The White House termed this budget a blueprint. And when it comes to science, it certainly is: a blueprint for disaster.
It is difficult to quantify all the ways this is a poor idea. But, quantifying is what I was trained to do, so let me try.
First, the excellence of U.S. universities, America's technological prowess, and the innovativeness of the U.S. economy are not a set of unrelated, happy coincidences. They share a common basis — generous government funding of scientific research – that has enjoyed uncommon bipartisan support. That support has come from an understanding that the investment in science pays off in diseases prevented and cured; in novel industries; and in technologies that bolster our national security.
The NIH's R01 grant – the research project grant – is renowned for launching scientific careers, including mine and my students'. I had a young graduate student who worked on an NIH grant with me; he's gone on to pioneer revolutionary techniques to deliver toxic cancer drugs to very specific parts of the body using antibodies. Had the NIH support not been there, he would have become a lawyer or perhaps a high school science teacher. These are noble pursuits, to be sure. However, I have little doubt that the cancer patients whose lives he has helped improve would think that a better outcome. More than 80 percent of NIH's budget goes as grants to research. That funding supports more than 400,000 jobs. When we cut these grants, we will sacrifice the next generation of young scientists.
Second, the sustained U.S. commitment to funding research has been a key factor in drawing top scientists to this country from around the world. This year's crop of Nobel Prize winners in physics makes the point nicely: all work in U.S. universities, and all were born abroad.
At a time when our posture towards immigrants is already imperiling our ability to attract the most talented people from around the world, this is another nail in the coffin. It was only in 2011 that the number of patent applications submitted in China surpassed the total in the United States. With these budget proposals, look for that gap to widen more briskly.
Third, this is a particularly poor time for retrenchment. Even if one disregards the gift we would be handing to other nations competing to take America's place at forefront of science, the fact is that we now have tools and techniques – many funded through the NIH – that may finally enable some of the most intractable and feared ailments – lung cancer, pancreatic cancer, Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease – to succumb to research. The therapeutics for these diseases are still very much in the future. With these cuts, that future is set back. Make no mistake: it will cost us in lives and suffering.
Fourth, we will never really know what we gave up when science funding is withheld. Let me give you an example.
In the 1950s and '60s, out of sheer scientific curiosity, physicists began exploring the effect of magnetic fields on the spinning of atomic nuclei – a field called nuclear magnetic resonance. Chemists harnessed these techniques to study the structures of molecules with a previously unachievable precision, leading to important new drugs. Biomedical scientists then applied it to people, giving us the vitally important diagnostic tool we know today as the MRI.
The same story could be told about the chain of discoveries and applications that led from solid-state physics to the transistor to microelectronics to computing to the Internet that enables the White House to blast out its tweets at 3 a.m.
None of these enormously important applications could have been predicted when scientists first began doing basic research in these fields. You cannot trim research budgets to get better results; you can only be sure of getting fewer good results.
There's a "déjà vu all over again" quality to this for me. Just a few years ago, as the head of Oxford University, I confronted this very same dilemma in my native country, the United Kingdom – a government proposing to roll back funding for science research. Scientists in industry and academia were galvanized, strong cases were made to the government of the critical role of research in a knowledge-based economy, and the argument was won. Now, looking at a future outside of the European Union, that same U.K. government is pointing to a strong science base as the foundation of future economic growth.
Take it from someone who has trod this path: cutting science funding was a bad idea then, and it is a bad idea now. A 20 percent cut perhaps does not sound like much today. However, I can assure you that the loss in scientific stature and talent and discoveries will haunt this nation's future for a generation or more.
Andrew Hamilton is the 16th President of NYU, a professor of chemistry, and a Fellow of the Royal Society.