Science: Less Flash, More Substance

Two years ago, I bought a pretty nice used car. Done with the tried and true workhorse type of car, I thought it was time to enjoy my ride, and I found a beautiful (and pricey) car. Leather heated seats, a GPS system that pops out of the dashboard when I need it, Bose surround sound speakers. This car looks amazing and feels amazing. I feel great driving it down the road and showing it off to friends, family and neighbors. Sure, I maxed the budget to buy this thing, but it's a sweet ride.

Now what does this have to do with science?

In today's fiscal environment, in which every dollar spent is politicized and scrutinized, our political leaders seem to subscribe to the same "flash is better than substance" mentality that I had when I purchased my car. Today, translational science is the leather seats and the GPS system of the innovation pipeline. While programs to generate new treatments and cures gets headlines, bipartisan Congressional policies and presidential announcements, the initial scientific discoveries that make these treatments and cures possible -- the tires, the airbags, the suspension, so to speak -- are getting the scrutiny and budget cuts.

Discovery science is frankly not as sexy or attention grabbing as the new treatments that come from the discovery. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health were praised widely for their work to develop potential vaccines against Ebola last fall, but little attention was paid to the scientists who figured out the basic virology and biochemistry that make vaccine development possible.

Let's look at investments in biomedical research. Ebola funding got a $5.5 billion increase in fiscal 2015, and President Obama's proposed Precision Medicine Initiative comes with a budget request of more than $200 million. And yet investments in discovery research remain flat. Barely half of the NIH's $30 billion budget is spent on discovery, and many researchers have called it quits or are considering doing so because they can't get the money they need to do their jobs.

Unwise austerity policies, including the spending caps established in the Budget Control Act of 2011 and mandatory cuts from sequestration, have damaged significantly the scientific community, threatened American leadership in innovation and possibly delayed the development of treatments that patients' lives depend on.

Discovery science, you see, takes money and time. The return on the investment is often so far into the future that private industry (beholden to stakeholders and boards of directors) decide to focus on development of the next blockbuster drug rather than make risky investments in research that may or may not help the bottom line.

Now back to my car. Six weeks after I bought it, I noticed a bubble in a tire and an odd sound coming from the back end, which turned out to be the signs of a busted tie rod. That new-to-me car -- which flashy and impressive as it was -- needed $2,000 in improvements. Now, remember: I had maxed out the car budget six weeks prior. But the overall investment I had made was too important to just ignore the problem. I sacrificed some home-improvement projects, canceled a trip and found the money to make the repair.

However, I could have avoided that all by paying attention to the important, albeit often unnoticed, parts of my investment in the first place. The same can be said for science proponents. Let's come together and call on Congress to invest appropriately in the critically important, albeit under-appreciated, discovery research even if it means forgoing for the time being some of the more flashy initiatives.