August 20, 2017

Editorial: Science deserves healthy support

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It’s hard to understand such a severe cut as President Trump proposes for the National Institutes of Health.

Science is one thing in our country that is going right. And though it requires patience and investment, research that could help us crack disease mysteries and develop treatments has powerful quality-of-life potential.

That is the kind of research the NIH undertakes and supports. And yet, the president wants to cut more than $7.7 billion from its budget next year. He also has proposed cutbacks to other science efforts.

We urge Congress, which has thankfully signalled some pushback on the matter, to protect the NIH — and the many labs reliant on it, including some cutting-edge ones here in Worcester — from this wound.

At a roundtable discussion with political leaders Wednesday, University of Massachusetts Chancellor Michael F. Collins offered some excellent reasons to oppose the president’s 22-percent cut in NIH’s budget for 2018: innovation, medical progress, the health and wellbeing of patients, and the local economy.

“This is a critical time in our country in terms of the future viability of the research and development environment, and it’s a critical time for our institution and our city, given how important this sector is to our economy,” he said.

We would add another concern with the federal budget proposal: It is further evidence of this administration’s lack of appreciation for intellectual pursuits and truth. Science is the ultimate fact-finder, and it would be disheartening if Trump’s signals on such topics as the environment and, in this case, biomedical research were to erode respect for research and discovery.

The relentless quest for knowledge is an engine for success in our wealthy, well-educated country. It brings solutions to countless human problems while sharpening our understanding for nature’s complexities and interdependencies. Pulling back federal funding for science — especially as sharply as Trump proposes — is cynical and shortsighted.

Locally, the economy would surely suffer. Biomedical research is a big employer. Collins, it was reported, estimated that the cost to the local economy from the proposed cuts would be between $100 million and $170 million annually.

The chancellor also said that the NIH cuts, if passed, could cost the medical school between $45 million and $73.5 million annually. The school receives more than $250 million every year in research funding from various sources. More than $150 million of that comes from NIH.

Other city institutions also rely on NIH grants for worthy, sometimes groundbreaking studies. At Wednesday’s roundtable, U.S. Rep. James McGovern said NIH awarded a total of 369 grants, adding up to nearly $165 million, to Worcester institutions in 2016.

And there is no putting a dollar value on the suffering that medical breakthroughs — paid for in part with federal monies — can prevent, or the insights and productive pathways basic research can spark. UMMS professor Craig Mello’s Nobel-prize winning discoveries on RNA interference are but one example of the latter.

Funding good science always involves risk, because we don’t know what if any answers will arise from the research; and also involves wait, because the work requires repetition, verification and refinement. It is a hugely appropriate and meaningful role for government to play; money is apportioned for a wide range of promising research projects, granters knowing that the semi-coordinated process will pay off in impossible-to-predict ways.

In the long run, there’s no doubt: It’s worth it.

Fortunately, Congress has demonstrated more wisdom than the Trump administration. Last spring it gave the NIH a $2 billion raise for the rest of its year, bringing its 2017 budget to $34.6 billion. (It is that figure that the calculations of a $7.7 billion, 22-percent proposed cut to the NIH budget in 2018 are based on.) We hope the 2018 budget survives Trump’s attempt to cripple it.

Meanwhile tomorrow, of course, the nation gets a whole different kind of science head’s-up.

The afternoon solar eclipse, which is be just a partial eclipse in our area, will be a rare and beautiful juxtaposition in the sky.

Even in this case, we learn, science doesn’t quit — though the eclipse that’s now just a day away is well understood and profoundly predictable. According to NASA, recent data about the moon’s mountains and valleys sent from an orbiting lunar spacecraft have let scientists produce an astonishingly precise map of the path the moon’s shadow will travel tomorrow.

Science doesn’t quit, but here on Earth, it needs money to keep it moving. We join Worcester leaders and researchers in wishing less time could be spent on annual budget battles, and more time in the labs tirelessly figuring out how nature fits everything together.

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