This past Saturday, April 22, I was one of the tens of thousands of scientists marching across the country and the world to support science. In my community, we gathered a crowd of over 2,000 people. As one of the organizers, seeing so many people gather in the name of science was heart-warming and gratifying. People protested against budget cuts to the NIH and other agencies, against the gutting of the EPA, against the continuous denial of man-made global warming. We all returned to our quiet homes feeling energized.
My fuzzy warm feeling was short lived. On my way home I got a text message from a friend. “I hope you didn’t go to the march,” she wrote. The message arrived a little too late, obviously, but what truly saddened me was that it came from a dear friend, one whose work and life dedication I admire very much. You see, my friend is a police officer. Every day she puts her life on the line to protect us from crime, robbers, murderers, and terrorists.
My friend’s argument was, “The government can’t pay for everything.”
Yes, that is true. And yet no one in their right mind would ever argue that our tax dollars should not fund police agencies, federal investigation agencies, or law enforcement agencies. We all want to live in safe communities, and we know that it takes money and effort to keep our communities safe.
So why can’t we have the same mindset when we think of our scientists? Heart disease alone kills over 600,000 Americans every year and it’s the first leading cause of death in the United States. Next comes cancer, which kills a little under 600,000 Americans every year. Together, these two diseases kill over a million people in the US alone. The fifth leading cause of death in adults over 65 years of age is Alzheimer’s disease, for which we still don’t have a cure.
One hundred years ago dying of infection was common. Today, we defeat infections thanks to antibiotics, and we prevent deathly viruses thanks to vaccines. At the beginning of the 1900s one in three newborns died before they reached the first year of age. Today, the infant mortality rate in the USA is 6 in 1,000 live births.
How did we get here? Thanks to publicly funded science. Your tax dollars. Yes, the government has put a lot of money into medical research. But what people received back is priceless. Try and put a price tag on a healthy, long life. Even diseases that still don’t have a cure have nonetheless gotten better treatments and prognosis. And the research on finding those cures is still moving forward. Do we really want to stop it now?
I’m not upset at my friend for what she told me. I’m upset at the current administration that cares so little for people that not only does it wants to cut funding to defeat the major killers of the American people (heart disease, cancer and Alzheimer’s), but they even claim it’s in the interest of all taxpayers.
An administration that does not invest in the public’s health is an administration that does not care for the wellbeing and safety of its own citizens. If we were to stop paying tax money for our local police departments, our communities would run havoc with crime and anarchy. Why don’t people perceive the same threat when the government plans huge budget cuts to the NIH? Do people really believe that acupuncture and grandma’s remedies cure everything? And if you think that private companies will take over the unfunded research, think again. Private companies get most of their ideas from publicly funded research.
Another argument I’ve often heard is that a good portion of any agency’s budget gets wasted anyway. True. However, cutting the entire budget is NOT equivalent to cutting wastes. No system, whether mechanical, social, or biological is 100% efficient. For every breath we take, we use only 5% of the 21% oxygen contained in air. Yet cutting 16% of the oxygen in the air would NOT make us suddenly use 100%. In fact, it would kill us. The same goes for research.
So next time you file your taxes hoping that your tax dollars are going to improve your life and safety, think of medical research too. You wouldn’t be where you are today without it. Dr. Bette Korber said it beautifully in her inspirational speech at the March for Science in Santa Fe:
Dr. Korber is an immunologist with over 20 years of work in HIV vaccine research, the recipient of the Lawrence Award—the highest scientific honor from the Department of Energy—and a passionate advocate for the environment and water rights.