By Ann Bonham, Ph.D.
Debates over who decides research priorities and how; and who decides what research should be funded by the federal government and how, are not new. They reflect competing views on the relative quality, priority, and appropriateness of research undertaken by scientists in this country. Sometimes, the debates veer into perilous territory. You may recall the infamous Golden Fleece Awards, which singled out projects funded by federal dollars as “wasteful” or “misguided.” The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) — two of the world’s most respected funding agencies supporting a broad spectrum of science and the scientific review process itself — invariably are called to task during these debates.
Recent activities in the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee raise some concern that Congress may take steps to insert an additional (Congressional) layer of review of research projects funded by the NSF and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). A discussion draft of the proposed bill, dubbed the “High Quality Research Act,” suggests that such requirements for additional Congressional review be extended to cover other federal science agencies, including the NIH.
In the simplest terms, this proposed bill would place decisions about the quality, priority, and appropriateness of scientific research into the hands of members of Congress. It positions them to second-guess decisions made by scientists and agencies that have been responsible for advancing incredible discoveries: discoveries that have increased the lifespan of patients with cardiovascular disease, created new life-saving vaccines, practically eliminated deaths from some forms of childhood cancer, and numerous other breakthroughs.
Congressional incursions into ruling on critical areas of research will effectively upend the entire process for identifying and supporting research priorities, which thus far has distinguished the United States as a global leader in research. Certainly, scientific review, like any human endeavor, is not perfect, but let’s look at just one result of the current process, which is founded on partnerships across our federal funding agencies and scientists across the nation.
Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2009 for her research on telomeres and telomerase, research she conducted on single-celled organisms otherwise known as “pond scum.” This work, evaluated over many years by scientific review, has launched new strategies in treating diseases and conditions such as blindness, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, and cancer. One wonders if Dr. Blackburn’s research on pond scum would have passed muster today with some members of Congress, based on the criteria outlined in the draft High Quality Research Act.
The scientific community welcomes Congress’s commitment to high quality science. We are all accountable to the public for stewardship of their dollars and for providing research in their interest. This requires all of us to do what we do best and work together. Scientists must communicate to Congress and the public the value of science that improves the health and well-being of the nation.
Congress must also do what it does best: to establish policies and resources that sustain funding for high quality science and to trust the scientists and federal funding agencies to assess the quality, priority, and appropriateness of the resulting research.
—Ann Bonham, Ph.D. is Chief Scientific Officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vivian Lee, MD, Dean of the University of Utah School of Medicine and CEO of University of Utah Health Care, speaks on the importance of academic medical research and stewardship of national fiscal resources.