Research Funding – a personal issue

August 28, 2007 at 2:53 am (grad school, politics, science)

With this post is about something near and dear to my heart, but I have discovered that too few people know about this issue (and to all my scientist friends that read this, sorry to rehash the same rant, but not everyone is in the trenches with us!).  I wanted to talk about the political issue that directly impacts my life:  federal research funding.  Wow, doesn’t that just grab you and make you want to keep reading?  I know it sounds a little dull, and it certainly doesn’t have the pizazz that topics like gay marriage and abortion do, but it is an issue that is critical to the well-being of our society and our nation, and people need to know what’s going on.

A little bit of background about myself, I am a grad student in a lab which does colon cancer research.  Oh yes, its just as glamorous as it sounds.  We are literally “curing cancer”- to some degree anyway.  People are awfully impressed when they hear this, although to me its just a job like any other.  What many people don’t realize is that federal funding for research like mine and research in general has been absolutely in the toilet for the last few years.  This coincides with, ummmmm, oh yea, that money black-hole on the other side of the world.  I won’t even say it.  Now I realize that “defending our country” (if that’s what you want to call it) is important, but if you really want to play the numbers game, lets look at how many people die of cancer, heart disease and diabetes (just to name 3) compared to how many people die in terrorist attacks.  Not to say that any one loss is less tragic than the other, but I think we’ve gotten our priorities massively screwed up here.

Ask any researcher and they will tell you that the situation is dire.  NIH supported grants have become so competitive that only around 10% of submitted grants are even funded.  That means that 9 out of 10 grants are rejected.  9 out of 10 researchers have to desperately find other means to keep their labs afloat during these dark times.  9 out of 10 potentially life-saving or scientific-advancing projects are not being carried out.  And when the grants are funded (as one of ours thankfully was recently) the amount awarded to the lab is often drastically below the amount promised or requested.  As my adviser always tells us, funding situations like this are cyclical, he rode out a similar one in the late 1980’s.  Hmm, would that mean that whenever a Bush is in the White House we’re going to have to pinch research pennies?

Now I could make my point all day long in the context of how this hurts cancer patients and families of loved ones suffering from diabetes or heart disease, but I will make another argument.  If the United States wants to stay in the forefront of scientific research, this situation needs to change, and fast.  Starting with our severely declining educational standing in the world, we are well on our way to losing our reputation for being at the leading edge of research and discovery.  The top scientific minds will start to look elsewhere, as they already do if stem-cell research is their area of study.

Research can never be put on the back burner.  As diseases and the bacteria and viruses that cause disease evolve, so must our knowledge on how to treat them.  Its a daunting task to keep up with the ever elusive cancer cell on a good day, but take away our labor force and supply money?  Good luck.  I say this now because it will be another key issue to examine when looking at which political candidates to support.  I’m sure a lot of these issues will be moot point whenever the money-sucking black-hole goes away.  We can hope anyway.

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