A Moral Imperative

Scientific funding is not "discretionary." Rather, it is essential to the competiveness and future of our country.
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There is no greater testimony to the wisdom and value of supporting scientific research than the awards ceremony held earlier this month in Stockholm, Sweden, where scientists were honored with Nobel Prizes.

For the three U.S. researchers feted for work in chemistry, medicine and physics -- half of this year's honorees in those disciplines -- support came not only from their institutions, but also from taxpayer dollars. Research grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, NASA and other federal agencies fuel the innovation and discovery that havelong made the United States a scientific juggernaut.

We at Duke Medicine applaud our own Dr. Robert Lefkowitz and Dr. Brian Kobilka, whom Dr. Lefkowitz mentored at Duke before he went to Stanford University, for sharing the Nobel Prize in chemistry. It is a richly deserved achievement. Both men trained as physicians and delved into laboratory research to unlock the mystery of cell receptors, which regulate normal cell functions but can also contribute to diseases. Their discoveries form the foundation for up to half of all medications in the marketplace. Dr. Lefkowitz's honor is validation for the research support he has received, partly as a Howard Hughes investigator, but also as a recipient of more than $15 million in NIH grantmoney during his 30-year career at Duke. Similarly, Dr. Kobilka has received $14 million in NIH support.

No doubt it was a great investment by taxpayers -- ask anyone who takes beta-blockers to treat heart disease, or angiotensin blockers to control high blood pressure, or antihistamines for allergies, or acid reflux drugs for heartburn, to name a few. It was also a gamble. During his early work, Dr. Lefkowitz faced skepticism from some peers that his quest was even plausible.

Now, of course, hindsight makes it easy to appreciate how right he was, but it also highlights how federal funding for scientific research and innovation is so important and so integral to the advancement of human health, as well to the economy. Their work not only saved countless lives, it fueled the pharmaceutical industry and created millions of jobs -- a huge return on a comparatively small investment.

It's impossible to know what pursuits will pay off in the kinds of blockbuster findings that lead to Nobel Prizes, but it is absolutely essential that the mission be undertaken. And precisely because of the speculative nature of the endeavor, only federal support can properly underwrite the kind of research that spans the scientific process from laboratory experiment to bedside.

Nobel Prizes in science are the pinnacle of scientific achievement, but there's a vast body of innovations and discoveries made every day by countless dedicated researchers committed to advancing knowledge, developing new technologies and medicines, and searching for cures to vanquish killer diseases. Our society would not be the same without these scientists and their important work.

In the current political climate, however, all federal funding, in particular for discretionary programs, is under scrutiny and threatened with cuts -- scientific research among them. Scientific funding is not "discretionary." Rather, it is essential to the competiveness and future of our country. The so-called fiscal cliff, which imposes automatic budget cuts and tax increases, includes an 8 percent reduction in funding to federal agencies that provide scientific research grants.

These cuts would have immediate and devastating impact, slowing or even halting discoveries of new treatments and potential cures for cancer, heartdisease, diabetes and other maladies that shorten the lives of millions of people and inflict heartache on their loved ones. We have already seen real progress. In the past 40 years, deaths from heart disease have decreased 50 percent, cancer is no longer an automatic death sentence and rates of HIV/AIDS infections have slowed. Much more needs to be done, if for no other reason than because it is moral imperative.

It's time to replace the bellicose budget bickering by both parties with solutions that meet our nation's pragmatic needs. We must also nurture innovation and advancements that can only result from funding scientific research. It would be a tragedy of epic proportions to allow research funding to drop off the cliff and thereby sever one of this country's most productive and differentiating economic arteries.

We should all celebrate and applaud the tremendous contributions made by the Nobel laureates whose extraordinary work deserves our praise. The true glory of scientific discovery is shared by us all, in better and longer lives.

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