FRANCIS S. Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), has been distributing a chart that shows the success rate of grant applications to NIH for scientific research. While the rate was about 30 percent as recently as a decade ago, it has plunged to about 15 percent, which Dr. Collins says is the lowest in history. One reason for this is that more applicants are seeking funds, but the budget squeeze also is to blame. Dr. Collins is worried that the low success rate will cause young scientists and researchers to abandon the laboratory for other careers or to take their talents and ideas to other countries.

NIH is the source of about 90 percent of basic research funding in biomedicine in the United States, and the field today is exciting and dynamic: Advances in genomics and imaging technologies are throwing open new worlds of exploration and promising vastly greater understanding of how diseases occur and can be treated. This is a time of promise, Dr. Collins told us, in research to fight cancer, HIV/AIDS, influenza and Alzheimer’s disease, among others. The United States should be at the forefront of this era and must pay for the research to do it.

From fiscal 1998 to 2003, NIH saw its program-level funding double, then plateau — which, given inflation, really means a steady erosion. More painful budget cuts could be in the offing in January. The argument that biomedical research pays a generous return on investment is well-grounded, not only in dollars but also in lives saved and illnesses conquered. There’s been a serious investment in training a new generation of scientists; it would be a pity to reverse direction on them now.

Dr. Collins’s appeal is one among many voiced lately by special interests. Non-defense discretionary spending is being crammed into ever smaller space because of the continuing impasse over the big issues of entitlements, taxes and defense. This affliction in our politics cannot be cured by science or medicine. It will require willpower and difficult choices by the president and Congress.

But when the scientist in charge of the nation’s research enterprise frets about “deep long-term damage” to biomedical research, we ought to pay particular attention. The research NIH funds is precisely what we should demand from government. It is critical to our future as a healthy society and world leader in science, and it’s not something the private sector will do in government’s stead. Do political leaders really want to explain to future generations why they let the United States walk away from a great age of biomedical discovery?