Beyond the March for Science: What Now?

While the March for Science was important, what's next is even more critical

Posted Apr 27, 2017

On Saturday thousands of people gathered in more than 600 national and international locations for the March for Science. While the march itself was important, what happens next is even more critical.

The March for Science champions robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity. The plan to cut funding for the biomedical research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) by 18 percent will have catastrophic results for Americans. Young scientists who already face stiff competition for funding will be chased away from promising research careers and vibrant laboratories on the brink of making critical discoveries will be forced to close.

Jay Blakesberg/earthdaynetwork
Source: Jay Blakesberg/earthdaynetwork

Some scientists have cautioned their peers against participating in the march. Issues of diversity and inclusion have been debated. Concern regarding racism and sexism have emerged. Fears that scientists may be perceived as an interest group and worries about politicizing findings have surfaced.

But biomedical research is a non-partisan issue. Democrats and Republicans are equally likely to have cardiovascular disease, cancer, or diabetes. Children whose parents voted for Trump are as likely to develop asthma and autism as children whose parents voted for Clinton.

As a scientist whose research has been funded by the NIH since 1985, I've seen first-hand how research betters the lives of people. I've learned how to relocate frail older nursing home patients while minimizing their morbidity and mortality. I've learned what alleviates the depression of family caregivers and what adds to their burden. And I've learned which older people are most likely to need help when a natural disaster, like a hurricane, strikes.

As the largest source of funding for medical research in the world, the NIH has been a driving force behind many decades of advances that have improved the health of people in every corner of America. Composed of 27 institutes and centers, NIH provides leadership and financial support to more than 300,000 researchers at over 3,000 universities, medical schools, and other research institutions in every state and throughout the world. The NIH has supported more than 130 Nobel Prize winners.

Research funded by the NIH has spared millions of people from suffering. Because of NIH-funded research, survival of the most common childhood leukemia is now 90 percent. Because of NIH-funded research, medication and lifestyle changes have slashed rates of heart disease and stroke. The NIH-funded Framingham Heart Study helped define risk factors and changed the course of public health. NIH-funded research has led a revolution in how we treat cancer. In 1983, the landmark Diabetes Control and Complications Trial was stopped early because results clearly showed that careful control of blood sugar reduced eye, kidney, and nerve damage by 50 to 75 percent. NIH-funded research found that the brains of people suffering from depressive illnesses look different from the brains of people who do not have depression and that these brain disorders are treatable.

Some have suggested that huge savings to the NIH budget could be made without harming lifesaving research by decreasing the indirect costs — the money paid to universities for overhead associated with grants. But these indirect costs which average about 30 percent of grant money include the cost of utilities, internet service, data storage, the construction and upkeep of laboratories, disposal of hazardous waste, and compliance with federal rules protecting human subjects. These very real costs are not slush. They are reimbursements for money that universities have already spent.

Others have said that private industry can pick up the slack. Drug companies and biomedical technology companies have charges to develop medications and devices, but they typically do not fund the basic research that has led to revolutionary new findings.   

Scientists are very close to making major discoveries that have the potential to transform our world — discoveries that if not completed will harm people worldwide. Recently, NIH-funded researchers measured and tracked levels of biomarkers in spinal fluid that appear to signal the onset of the earliest stages of Alzheimer's disease. Work is underway to develop a vaccine that can help smokers quit for good as it prompts the immune system to make antibodies that sop up nicotine while it is still in the bloodstream, keeping the addictive substance away from the brain. And new materials are being developed that will stabilize the fragile bones of people with osteoporosis.

Engaging and training the next generation of scientists is crucial to building a strong foundation. One of the most rewarding jobs I've had as a scientist is to serve on NIH committees that evaluate the training potential of Ph.D. and M.D. students. The talent pool is tremendous. Smart investments in medical research will keep our nation healthy, strong, and competitive for years to come. But the resources for doing so must exist.

The promise has never been greater. The greatest hope for a future filled with good health lies in biomedical research. In these post-march days, contact your congressmen and urge them not to cut funds to the NIH. Your life and the lives of your children and grandchildren depend on it.

About the Author

Rachel Pruchno, Ph.D., is the Endowed Chair and a professor of medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Her memoir Surrounded by Madness is available at online bookstores.

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