Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Slashing the NIH budget

In late January this report ran announcing the Bush administration's intentions to cut the NIH budget by one percent, making 2008 the fifth year the NIH budget has languished in mediocrity and failed to keep up with the rate of biomedical inflation. While fears and smoke boasted the slash could go as high as ten percent, indeed, the jury is out: Once again the NIH budget will receive a meager 0.8% increase in funding, falling ever further behind the cutting edge of research, at a time when critical discoveries are likely to be had.

Scientists must now spend more and more time writing grants, competing for less and less money. What used to be a mad rush two times a year now seems like a perpetual Sisyphean task, grinding research to a halt without some sort of guarantee of success. That's not what academic research is supposed to be about. By no means am I advocating that academia does not bear a responsibility to give back to the community that is funding their work, but if we are to be scientists, that is, to practice Science, we can't be asked to tell the people our pre-experiment intelligence is a slam dunk.

The science community has responded with a comprehensive presentation of why this funding is so critical.

But there's also a broader question with respect to America's identity. Are we ready to abandon our status as champions of innovation and research? This kind of retrograde action speaks more to the landscape of the current political culture, but it does bear mentioning here, if only in passing.

Or let's think like an economist. What's a more sound strategy for the long term? Do we cut funding to research by the brightest minds of our generation to save on the budget now, or do we accept the inherent risk associated with science and gamble that our discoveries and breakthroughs will translate into not only a better life, but a fatter treasury? What if we could cut the cost of medicine in the States in half with new technology and research? Would that be of interest to anyone? What if we could cure Alzheimer's? Obliterate cancer? Don't these goals deserve at least the dignity of keeping up with nominal rising costs?

Ah well, at least the power of prayer is free.

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