Funding for scientific and biomedical research contributes to finding cures for diseases, provides jobs, encourages talented young people to pursue careers in these professions and keeps the United States on the cutting edge of fields that Americans have long pioneered. Few government actions could be more shortsighted and counterproductive than cutting research funding, but it has happened in Washington and preventing it from happening again will be an important goal in the federal budget debate now underway.
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, took the offensive on this front Monday, calling not just for an end to cutbacks but for a doubling of federal funding of scientific and biomedical research and more consistent funding of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Speaking before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, Senator Warren observed that this kind of research "drives economic growth," which is certainly the case in Massachusetts with its sizable biotechnology sector. Berkshire County would like to get a piece of this industry, which is concentrated around Boston, and is more likely to if federal funding contributes to its growth.
The argument against federal funding for scientific research is that this is the job of private industry, but that ignores the reality born of decades of precedent. Private industry is interested in applied research that can create a product and profits. The basic research that will lead to breakthroughs, often following years of research down unproductive blind alleys, requires federal funding because it won't come in substantial quantities from anywhere else. From this work comes the applied research that leads to dramatic medical breakthroughs, for example, that save and enhance lives while fueling the U.S. economy. This is the way it works in countries around the world, and the United States will lose ground in a number of painful ways if Washington, D.C. doesn't step up.
The budget for the NIH has been stagnant for 10 years, and the across-the-board spending cuts triggered by the sequestration folly forced the agency to cut its budget by 5 percent. The uncertainty of research funding is frustrating for scientists who may be inclined to go where government is not undermining their efforts. The damage done by the sequester must be undone by Congress in the weeks ahead, and for all of the reasons outlined above, Washington must follow Senator Warren's lead and meet its responsibility to fund critically important scientific and biomedical research in our state and nation.