The Researcher Who Never Was: Sequestration Blues-Part One

New Orleans, March 1, 2013: Barges on the Mississippi still moving on Sequestration Day. New Orleans, March 1, 2013: Barges on the Mississippi still moving on Sequestration Day. Photo courtesy of author.

So it happened. I woke up on March 1 in a hotel room in New Orleans, and everything was eerily quiet. Outside, it was the usual silent rush hour of barges, slowly being pushed up the Mississippi River. Inside, there was only the occasional slammed door down the hallway, probably an unfortunate hotel guest who needed to catch an early flight. Despite the arrival of the draconian automatic government spending cuts known as sequestration, the rotation of the earth had not come to a grinding halt.

So, business as usual? Not at all. We will look back at this March 1, 2013, as a very bad day for science policy in the United States and we will deeply regret it. The risk, as I see it, is that many citizens will feel exactly as I did waking up in the Crescent City, and realizing that the world had not come to a stop, deciding that nothing has happened. Not yet. Sequestration was designed to be so awful that it could not happen, showing that sometimes reality can be more creative than imagination. As several economists and policy analysts have pointed out, sequestration will not bite immediately. It will take a while, perhaps too long for a society with a very short attention span, to sink its teeth into our future. And this is particularly true for the effect on science, engineering, and innovation.

Science is about long distance running, not the 100-meter dash. Science runs on cycles far longer than election cycles because the direct product of science is knowledge, not services. It can take decades to grasp the relevance of a new fact or insight. PCR was invented to help scientists settle obscure questions about nucleic acids. No one imagined that it would be used in criminal trials, to track human evolution, or to find DNA traces of horse meat in frozen "beef" hamburgers. I also think of the legendary advocate for basic medical research, Mary Lasker. She said it best—if you think research is expensive, try disease!

To me, sequestration is nonsense. Imagine if the federal government were a corporation that suddenly could not afford to sustain its expenses. The good CEO would not say to cut everything linearly. The visionary leader would instead make bigger cuts in areas that were either not as productive as competitors' or too mature for real growth. Smart leaders would increase some areas of R&D funding, yes, even during austerity times, in promising areas. It is innovation, not lack thereof, which will get us out of the hole. Many advanced and developing nations, especially in Asia, are ramping up their investments in science and technology, because they understand this is about their future. Consider that between 1995 and 2007, China increased its scientific publications by 16%; Singapore by more than 10%. The United States? Less than 0.5%. In short, we are eating our seed corn. And now with sequestration, we must throw away 5% of that.

Science, and particularly basic science, has been phenomenally successful in the improvement of health. Think of the decrease in mortality due to the reduction in cardiovascular mortality. Those improvements alone are responsible for about 70% of increased life expectancy. Think how relatively quickly we transformed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable chronic disease.

Should we be satisfied now, and call it a day? We probably understand 5% of human biology. And I do not think this is an exaggeration. Think of how intractable most mental health disorders remain. We understand so little about the brain and about mental illness, which is why we have so few effective therapeutics. The price we pay for extended life expectancy is the rise of chronic debilitating disease. We need to tackle disorders like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's not merely so we can live longer but so we can live longer productively. The economic and societal impacts of our relative ignorance about these and other biological mysteries are huge. A 2011 report from the World Economic Forum estimated that over the next 20 years, chronic diseases (mostly mental disorders, Parkinson's, and Alzheimer's) will cost more than US $30 trillion. In 2010 that figure represented 48% of global GDP. By 2030, these costs will push millions of people below the poverty line.1

Research is an imperative, because research is hope; without research we are robbed of our future and flattened into the present. Is this what we want?

Sequestration and anemic investments in research, lost funding—and lost time—could cost us the next big breakthrough in science and sidetrack important incremental advances, which are essential to new fields. I cringe at the delayed cures and the unexplored connections that will be the price of these myopic policies, but what worries me the most is that of losing talent, human talent, young human talent. We run the risk of losing the next generation of scientists, as the former NIH Director, Dr. Elias Zerhouni, recently pointed out.2

This is the biggest risk that we are facing and it leads me to some slightly more in depth considerations on the biomedical workforce. In facing these extraordinary challenges, I wonder how we can keep attracting young and enthusiastic students into science, while at the same time responsibly worrying if there are enough opportunities for them. I think these are very probing issues, exacerbated by the latest nonsensical sequestration cuts. All of us in research biology, at the ASCB and elsewhere, should seriously focus on this issue and ask ourselves a very tough question—do we really need more biomedical scientists?

I will tackle that issue in the next installment of "Activation Energy: The Researcher Who Never Was:Sequestration Blues—Part Two'

  1. Bloom DE et al. (2011). The Global Economic Burden of Noncommunicable Diseases. Geneva: World Economic Forum.
  2. http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2013/02/21/former-nih-director-the-sequester-will-set-back-medical-science-for-a-generation/
Stefano Bertuzzi

Dr. Stefano Bertuzzi is the Executive Director of the American Society for Cell Biology. In this position he is responsible, with the ASCB Board, for strategic planning and all operations at the Society to serve the needs of its ~9,000 members and to promote the field of cellular biology and basic science.

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