In "Get U.S. gov't out of medical research" , Michael D. Tanner of the Cato Institute argues that basic biomedical research should be shifted from the public to the private sector. His arguments are based upon a number of misconceptions about science and research. A full discussion of these points is essential for American taxpayers to understand what they are currently funding, and why they should continue to see their tax dollars support government-funded research.
The United States depends on technology to remain competitive in our global economy, and as the 21st century progresses, this reliance will become larger.
The foundation for all aspects of technology is basic science. Biotechnology is based upon basic research that began in the 1950s. The birth of this field is often marked as the discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick, made at a laboratory that was funded by the United Kingdom's government to study basic science. All computer technology, from smartphones to laptops, stems from advances in solid-state physics that were mainly made in government-funded basic research. The Internet, which has so dramatically transformed both our lives and our economy, began as a government-funded program to tie together university research laboratories.
Tanner appears to suggest that if the government were not funding such activities, the private sector would fill this void. But no corporation today, beholden to shareholders and mindful of profits, can afford to make the investments in basic science that may not see returns for 20 to 40 years.
This situation has not always been the case. AT&T Bell Labs made advances such as the transistor, which is in almost every electronic device, and the laser, a component of every CD and DVD player. The costly support of this basic research was only possible because AT&T was a government-protected monopoly and faced no competition. After its breakup in 1984, Bell Labs became Lucent Technologies, and in 2008 disbanded all basic science research to focus on technology that would be more immediately marketable. Pharmaceutical companies are in the same position. A void created by government withdrawal from funding basic research would never be met by industry pouring the billions of dollars needed into this area. No company could afford to do it in a competitive environment.
Another possible misconception underlying arguments for reducing government investments in basic research is that almost all of science is now known, and our task should be to apply existing science to questions of health, energy, etc. Such arguments have been made repeatedly in the past. A very prominent physicist in 1900 stated that the edifice of physics was complete; but he failed to anticipate the revolutions in relativity and quantum mechanics that would be responsible for everything from GPS devices to MRI scanners. In biology there are essential questions that we cannot yet answer, such as how do bacterial cells divide? Given the role that bacteria play in many human diseases, answering this question is not an academic exercise. Our lack of better treatments for cancer stems in large part from our ignorance of basic aspects of how the stability of the human genome is maintained.
Tanner's arguments may only be understood in terms of an underlying philosophy of minimizing government, with the hope held that our society will driven by the free-market economy. However, we cannot turn to the original intent of the Founding Fathers to answer such questions about government involvement in funding science. The world has changed too much. Countries like South Korea, Germany and China that are faring so well with exports, have governments that are intimately involved in research, education and training. If we look at countries in the world that have minimized government, we are left with ones like Somalia and Pakistan. Which way will the United States go: Will the government fund the scientific discoveries that will drive the economy 20 years from now, or will centers for advanced science move out of the United States?
The mission of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) is to improve human health. As Tanner notes, the American public and its representatives support this mission. However, Tanner claims that the mechanism of NIH-funded research is flawed. He believes that NIH research does not undergo the same scrutiny as other government funding, and that decisions are made by bureaucrats who have little knowledge of science and rely on an "old boys" network.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. NIH-supported medical research undergoes rigorous scrutiny in terms of peer-review. NIH officials and publishers of scientific journals carefully insure that no bias exists in terms of race, religion, sex or area of scientific research. Review panels and the names and descriptions of the grants they fund are public and accessible to everyone.
Since NIH funding is knowledge-driven and not market-driven, unexplored areas of science can be investigated. Biotechnology has greatly benefited from basic studies of fruit flies, where scientists identified the function of many genes that can be related back to human genes, and worms, where scientists delineated pathways of neural development and more. These basic studies, which seem so distant to human health, have allowed our industries to remain globally competitive.
Medical research in the United States is the envy of the world. Even though the United States now lags behind many countries in K-12 science and math education, U.S. science at the college and graduate level is far beyond any other country, as assessed by articles in peer-reviewed scientific journals and prestigious awards. Students and scientists from other countries come to the United States to learn, and many stay and contribute to our economy. Tanner's prescription for privatizing medical research, driven by the idea of minimizing government, would diminish our competitiveness.
Suzanne Scarlata, Northport
Edward Egelmann, Charlottesville, Va.
Editor's note: Scarlata is a professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at Stony Brook University. Egelmann is a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at the University of Virginia.