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Where's the Recognition for Budding Nobel Laureates?

Where's the Recognition for Budding Nobel Laureates?

This weekend's Nobel Prize ceremony provides a good time to reflect on our nation's support for future research.

Friday, December 9, 2011 - 18:45

Inside Science Contributor

Inside Science presents Inside Science Minds, an ongoing series of guest columnists & personal perspectives on science presented by scientists, engineers, mathematicians, and others in the science community. The opinions contained in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Inside Science nor the American Institute of Physics and its Member Societies.

By: Mary Woolley

(ISM) -- This year’s Nobel Prize winners include several well-known Americans, well-known in the world's science community that is -- outside of science, not so much.  Sixty-six percent of Americans cannot name any living scientist, according to a poll commissioned by Research!America, the organization that I lead. 

We’re on the brink of major scientific breakthroughs that could dramatically reduce the prevalence of life-threatening disease and disability in the U.S. and abroad.  We don’t have to dig deep to find the evidence.  This year’s Nobel winners in Physiology or Medicine -- Bruce Beutler of UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, Jules Hoffmann of Strasbourg University in France, and the late  Ralph Steinman of Rockefeller University in New York, whose research had been supported by the National Institutes of Health  -- are being honored for their work on the activation and regulation of the immune system, are leading to new ways of preventing and treating infections, cancers and inflammatory diseases. 

Elsewhere, in clinical trials funded by the NIH, studies indicate that transplanting a patient’s own stem cells into the heart can improve cardiac function and reduce mortality following a heart attack.  Stem cell research has also been found to aid in understanding the cause of Parkinson’s disease.  By manipulating embryonic stem cells into dopamine-producing brain cells, they can replace cells lost in patients suffering from this disease.  And with NIH support, researchers are developing a new test that will help detect Alzheimer’s disease earlier.  Using nanotechnology, this new method is up to one million times more sensitive than current tests.

But as lawmakers in Washington continue to clash over federal spending priorities, such promising research could be derailed or stalled indefinitely, forcing many investigators to relocate to one of the several other nations now ramping up their investments in research and innovation.  Our global competitiveness is at great risk.  Our nation’s health and economic prosperity are at great risk. 

This is not the time to scale back our investment in research.  Nearly 60 percent of Americans believe we’re not making enough progress in medical research here in the U.S., according to the Research!America poll.  And they are right!  When fewer than one in five research projects can be funded, progress will not come quickly. Yet Congress, with the failure of the deficit-reduction supercommittee, is forcing federal agencies to plan for mind-boggling spending cuts to research agencies - nearly eight percent for the NIH, and NSF as part of across-the-board cuts.  The result would be slower progress in science and more discouragement for our youngest scientists.

What message are we sending to young scientists who rely on taxpayer support to push the boundaries of science?  Should they abandon their pursuit of new medicines that could eradicate our nation’s deadliest killers?  These are considerations that must be taken seriously as policymakers tackle the challenge of reducing our deficit while fueling the economy to once again achieve robust growth. 

Cutting funding for research is not a deficit-reduction strategy.  Insufficient funding will imperil our progress fighting disease, cost us good jobs, damage the economy and undermine our ability to remain globally competitive.  We must give our scientists and health researchers the resources they need to conquer our most daunting health challenges.  We must also give them the recognition they deserve for persevering in difficult economic times.  If we expect more Nobel Prizes for American scientists, we need to act like a country that values being world class in science and innovation.

Mary Woolley is president and CEO of Research!America, an Alexandria, Virginia based not-for-profit public education and advocacy alliance with a mission of making research to improve health a higher national priority.


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