A Weekly Advocacy Message from Mary Woolley: Do we still value discovery?

Dear Research Advocate:

The accomplishments of the recently announced 2014 Nobel laureates in the fields of physiology or medicine, and chemistry are breath-taking. Whether identifying the mechanisms by which the mind comprehends space and place, or enhancing ability to observe how diseases develop, these scientists have, over time, enabled progress that couldn’t have been determined by fiat. Science serves us all via an iterative discovery process, which is why policymakers are skating on thin ice when they censor research that doesn’t promise results that serve a date or purpose certain. Centuries ago, European rulers launched many ventures before eventually discovering the New World — not every journey was a success, nor was everything discovered anticipated in advance. It is ever thus as we continue to explore new worlds, since even as discoveries open new vistas, plenty of surprises occur. Indeed, some new worlds are not as “new” as first thought — to wit, October includes a holiday known to some as Columbus Day and to others as Indigenous Peoples Day. Seeing things in a new light doesn’t mean we should shut down discovery because some aspects of it make us uneasy or call our values into question.

Ebola has called our values into question, to be sure. Do we need a shared sense of existential threat like Ebola to arrive on our doorstep — a “Sputnik moment,” if you will — before Americans mobilize to demand more support for U.S. science?  Although there is every reason to believe that the world can contain Ebola — we have contained all previous Ebola outbreaks — there is no denying that we are not as well positioned as we should be to face down this challenge, due to years of under-investment in research and public health, including research on diseases that seem rare and/or remote.  My op-ed in Roll Call this week drives home this point, calling on decision-makers to act for NIH, CDC, and, fundamentally, for forward-thinking instead of reactive policies.

Speaking of decision-makers, Congressman Hal Rogers and Senator Barbara Mikulski, Chairs of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees respectively, have made it clear that they intend to negotiate and pass an FY15 omnibus appropriations bill during the lame duck session, come hell or high water.  It is an understatement to say that it will be difficult to craft compromise legislation that re-prioritizes federal funding. But the alternative — another kick-the-can-down-the-road extension of FY14 funding — is an abdication of one of the central responsibilities of this or any Congress.  We applaud the Chairs and their hard-working staff.  And we urge their colleagues to follow their lead.

So, on to November!  The surest path to getting the Congress you don’t want is to stay home on Election Day. This Washington Post article reports that the overwhelming majority of Americans are not engaged in this midterm election cycle, with record-low voter turnout now predicted.  So let’s capitalize on the fact that our votes will carry more weight than ever.  Let’s make sure we are running toward, instead of away from, Washington, and voting for individuals who care about, and are willing to take responsibility for, creating a funding and policy environment that speeds medical progress. If you don’t know whether your candidates plan to champion medical innovation, check out the Ask Your Candidates! search function — you can look for candidates individually by name or search for all candidates in your state or zip code. You will be able to read your candidates’ responses to questions about medical progress and you can send them a quick message if they haven’t already made their views known. The election is less than a month away. Contact your candidates now while they’re still stumping for votes.


Mary Woolley

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