At a time when the administration and Congress are haggling over how many hundreds of billions should be spent on defenses and Star Wars games to protect the nation from our potential political enemies, the biomedical research community is at war against a number of real microbial enemies and deadly diseases that threaten the health and fiber of our country.
Scientists are fighting heroic battles in the laboratories and hospitals of our nation often with antiquated equipment and without the money to build the proper weapons systems to destroy the enemy within. We are winning some of the battles, but in many areas, such as AIDS, we are hardly holding our ground. The recently approved blood test to detect antibodies against the virus of acquired immune deficiency syndrome is an outstanding example of the ingenuity and rapidity with which we can develop a line of defense; however, it will only buy a little time, since it is not a cure and will not stop this deadly disease from spreading.
In its wisdom, the 98th Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike, appropriated additional funds to help the embattled scientists in their search for new weapons to fight disease. These funds, which amounted to only $200 million dollars a year, would have provided the scientific community with about 1,500 new research grants (over last year's 5,400 grants for the entire country), the first real increase in biomedical support in about 10 years. However, at the most inopportune time, the Office of Management and Budget has rescinded (perhaps illegally) this congressional decision. The scientific community is outraged. The decision diminishes productivity and is markedly affecting the morale of the scientific community. Additionally, the OMB approach freezes out highly talented young investigators.
From my vantage point as an educator and scientist, this misguided action by OMB may needlessly place our nation at risk. A commitment to research should not be lumped in with special interests. The health of our citizens should not be a political issue.
The investment we made in supporting innovative research in the 1960s is paying off 100-fold in new drugs and new therapies. Unfortunately, we are not continuing that commitment.
For the past several years, before this latest maneuver by OMB, we have been seeing a tragic decline in federal support, a decrease in graduate enrollments, a deterioration of laboratory equipment and an increasing shortage of capital investment in basic research. This lack of vision by government will undoubtedly come back to haunt us.
As our own support for basic science has been declining, other nations -- Japan, Germany, Italy and France and many others -- have benefitted by sending their students and scientists to the United States to learn from our professors and to acquire our technology. They are now, in many cases, spending more money to support new basic research than we are.
I think it is important for all Americans to tell the president and his staff that the cutback in funding of the National Institutes of Health is a mistake, both in terms of the health of our nation and in terms of our economy. Many of the scientific and medical breakthroughs of the 1960s and 1970s that are currently being applied to treat the sick would not be available in 1985 if the funding had not been adequate.
Now, only one third of all research grants approved by a scientific review system can be funded, in contrast to 80 to 90 percent in the mid-1960s.
To correct the current and long-term problems in this area, there are a number of recommendations I would propose:
* At a minimum we must restore the funding for the 1,500 or so new grants that will be lost in 1985.
* We must establish a significant number of new doctorate graduate training programs in each of the biomedical disciplines (biochemistry, pharmacology, immunology, physiology, etc.) and encourage graduate students to enter science as a career.
* We must encourage the president and Congress to develop new legislation to mandate the percentage of scientifically approved investigator-initiated research grants be restored to the funding level it was at in the mid-1960s. This would require a doubling of the current funding for biomedical research around the country -- to about $4 billion. While this is a formidable increase, it is small compared with our annual health-care bill of more than $300 billion, which is increasing by $20 billion to $30 billion a year.
An increased investment by government in the health sciences would:
* Modernize our scientific laboratories, restore the integrity of our basic research programs and give our scientists and students the opportunity to once again explore the unknown.
* Enhance the dollars invested by industry in biotechnology. Breakthroughs in this area, such as genetic engineering, have helped spur our economy over the last five years and will have the opportunity to help produce even more jobs and further stimulate our economy in the future. It is estimated that the biotechnology industries will be valued at more than $250 billion dollars within the next 15 years.
* Improve the quality of life for all Americans.
If we are successful in the laboratory, our citizens will be able to lead longer, healthier lives and we will be able to lower the staggering cost of health care.
The president and the Congress can do more to ensure the future health of all Americans by recinding the OMB cuts and by reestablishing graduate education and basic research as a high priority item.