Op-ed by Research!America Chair The Hon. John E. Porter published in The Huffington Post.
Why has science become a take-it-or-leave-it proposition for many Americans? Given all that has been accomplished thanks to our nation’s investment in medical research, the value proposition should be ingrained in the public consciousness — reductions in deaths from heart disease and stroke, the eradication of polio in industrialized nations, transformation of HIV/AIDS from a death sentence to a manageable chronic illness, a sense of justifiable optimism instead of despair when a child receives a cancer diagnosis. So much more is within reach if we summon the public and political will to end Alzheimer’s, prevent diabetes, put more cancers in the history books, effectively address mental illness, provide new medical technologies for our wounded warriors. The list goes on.
What will it take to raise awareness and build a greater appreciation of science among Americans and policymakers? Scientists themselves are the most trusted messengers for research, according to polling commissioned by Research!America, yet they are largely invisible to the public. A majority of Americans cannot name a living scientist and many do not know where research is conducted in the U.S. This underlying knowledge gap has led some to question the value of taxpayer-funded research. “If I can’t see it, it must not exist” has worked against research as anti-government sentiments combined with deficit-reduction imperatives drive decision-making on Capitol Hill. This attitude has led to a dearth in federal R&D investments, policies that hinder private sector innovation, challenges in combating global health threats and unreasonable attacks on behavioral and social sciences research. Federal support for medical and health research has also waned as many elected officials seek to diminish government’s role in accelerating medical progress on the mistaken assumption that the private sector and other entities will bear that responsibility.
Sequestration, the automatic spending cuts that stalled important research across the country, and years of flat-funding as homeland defense swept other priorities aside, have shifted the balance with federal funding for research on a downward trajectory. In reality, the public and private sector work hand-in-hand, relying on the discoveries derived from basic scientific research to develop the next blockbuster drug or medical device that could relieve the suffering of millions of patients; one cannot thrive without the other.
It’s time to recognize how different our lives would be without federally-funded research. Many scientific discoveries supported by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other federal agencies that we take for granted have improved our quality of life and protected us from major health threats. Why would we slow down the march of progress? Scientists can play a major role in ensuring that the American public connects the dots of the research pipeline by describing the importance of research in bringing new therapies and cures to market and reducing inefficiencies in our healthcare system.
Speaking at town hall meetings, at the local chamber of commerce or addressing students are some of the ways scientists can engage with the public and elected officials. Volunteering as a science advisor for candidates running for local or national office will help to enlighten and cultivate individuals who can potentially become champions for science in government. Only then can we expect Americans to rally for science and reject attempts by policymakers and others to undervalue research as a major contributor to our nation’s health, national defense and economic stability.
Also read op-ed by Research!America Board member and American Heart Association CEO Nancy Brown on the importance of medical research, here.