Thursday, February 21, 2013

The Political Destruction of Health Research

The Washington Post has a fabulous interview with Elias Zerhouni, a former NIH Director, about the effect of the proposed NIH cuts in the federal budget.

The projected cuts are 8.2%. Zerhouni does a great job explaining why this is particularly devastating to an organization that functions on long-term research.

I hear lots of arguments about why this is really not so bad.

1) "Research should be in the purview of the private sector."

Rely on market forces for medical research, and you get research that produces all sorts of new hormone treatments, but not the research that shows how the hormone treatments harm women. What you will get is research that is profit-driven, not health-driven.

2) "Some of that research is so dumb anyway."

Hear about the study that used recovery funds that had people mail in toenail clippings and measure nicotine exposure? It might sound crazy, but it actually aims to determine people's risk for lung cancer--and understanding risk is critical to protecting health. Believe me, I've gone through the grant-funding process. I'm sure a few crazy things slip through the cracks, but I can assure you most things that sound crazy are probably actually pretty important.

3) "We need to spend money on 'real' jobs."

I'm a puny little researcher, with very little grant funding, in comparison to those around me. But even I have--in addition to what I like to pretend is some half-decent research, in the world of incremental findings--created two jobs. Created two jobs with (sort of) decent wages for bachelor's-level individuals--not "fancy scientists". Huge portions of grant funding goes to personnel--and much of that goes to creating jobs at many levels. Researchers, for sure, but also the assistants, administration workers, project managers... 8.2% cuts won't just be felt by "researchers" but by people who work in all sorts of jobs.

Cuts in medical research hurt everyone. And they will continue to hurt everyone even if funding is restored, because researchers like me won't be able to stay in research, and will have already left. If I'm not funded, I don't have a job. My "cushy faculty job" is entirely dependent upon my success with funding--which is largely government-based. I'm still fighting the fight, but it's not something I can do forever. Many of the bright minds--the person who could find the proverbial "cure for cancer"--will leave the field, and that gap in brainpower will be felt for generations to come.

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