by Audrey Lee '16 and ScM '17
Have you ever stopped to think about how medications, such as Advil and Tylenol, were developed? Or even how the fruits and vegetables you eat were produced? The answer to these questions (and many, many others) rests in the basic scientific and medical research performed in laboratories across the nation and around the world. It is hard to imagine that some of the greatest advances in medicine were serendipitously discovered at a small laboratory benchtop. However, it is even harder to imagine what the effects of President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to basic scientific and medical research.
The budget blueprint proposed earlier this month outlines reductions to many federal science agencies. Not surprisingly, among the hardest hit by the budget axe will be the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) . Included in the proposed budget is an 18% cut from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), equivalent to $5.8 billion, and almost a 20% cut to the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, equivalent to $900 million . Although it may seem that these drastic reductions will only affect a handful of federal agencies, funding from the NIH trickles down to more than 2,600 institutions around the country . Fortunately, scientific research has bipartisan defenders in Congress who are likely to oppose the deep cuts. However, unfortunately, the proposed budget is a reflection of the administration’s lack of value for scientific research .
Some researchers noted that labs would have to abandon research projects and cut staff. In a typical laboratory, there is a principal investigator who is analogous to the general manager of a professional sports team. The principal investigator is responsible for hiring new researchers and obtaining funding for research projects, and serves as an essential resource for other laboratory members. Then there are postdoctoral researchers, graduate students and laboratory technicians who serve as the coaches of the team. Their knowledge and expertise guide the players of the team, or the research assistants, who are consistently learning by carrying out experiments.
To gain insight into the process of funding research, the importance of basic scientific research and the implications of the budget blueprint, I spoke to a senior scientist and professor, running her own laboratory at Brown University. In order to maintain privacy and confidentiality, I will refer to her as Professor Jane Doe, Ph.D. She explained that the majority of basic research is funded by the federal government. More specifically, in the biomedical sciences, most of research funding comes directly from the NIH. Professor Doe mentioned that there are other sources of funding, including charitable foundations such as the American Heart Association and the Susan Komen Foundation. However, these foundations are focused on particular diseases, and the level of funding does not match that of the federal government. She explained that before 1950, research was fairly inexpensive. Most laboratories were just one person with a research assistant. As a result, the cost of materials and salaries was low and endowments from universities and hospitals were sufficient to support research projects. Advancements in the scientific community, including the increased sophistication and complexity of equipment and experiments, the number of people on a laboratory team, research has become more expensive.
When asked about the significance of basic science research, Professor Doe raved about the effects of the polio vaccine, RNA interference (RNAi), and CRISPR/Cas9, among others. She explained:
The development of the polio vaccine involved over 125 different strains of viruses and various tissues . The success of this vaccine saved millions of dollars for the country. Consider the permanent medical assistance needed or the work days lost by polio victims. The vaccine absolved these economic obstacles, having a massively positive effect on the country’s economy.
RNAi was discovered using a clear roundworm. This technique allows harmful genes to be successful knocked out, thus preventing the deleterious effects of these genes from being expressed. The implications include furthering basic research in many fields and medical applications.
Finally, CRISPR/Cas9 was found in a bacterial strain. It is currently the gold standard for genetic manipulation, allowing researchers to easily and precisely edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of DNA.
Each of these monumental discoveries were made in laboratory that likely received federal funding.
Professor Doe called the effects of the proposed budget buts “disastrous.” She went on to describe these effects stating that universities and hospitals do not have the necessary funds to make up for the loss of research grants. If laboratories are unable to fund their research projects and support the salaries of paid laboratory members, then people are laid off and laboratories close down. Even if research funds do become available in the future, senior scientists will have to start building their laboratories from scratch all over again, having lost years of experience. Given the great effects that basic research has on the nation’s health and economy, she pointed out that there will likely be setbacks nationwide in areas outside of just basic science research. Although there are nonfederal sources that support research funding too, these sources are a very small amount of the total.
Living in an advanced society, we have the knowledge, tools and motivation to make an everlasting impact on the nation through basic research. There is current research that needs to continue and much more that still needs to be discovered. Hopefully, the current administration and others will realize that, and make the upcoming budget and policies reflect this accordingly.