The following link is profound. The current issue of EdgeScience takes a brilliant look at how the current era in science is more about rushing technology to market to benefit society than the underlying universal truths that must first be studied. The consequences have been strikingly similar to the ‘Housing Bubble’ and may not have fully burst yet.
I was recently approached about developing a children’s book to educate about bacteria in hopes of clarifying misconceptions many have about ‘nasty germs’. I must say how amazed and honored by the invitation I am. The company is small without a lot of capital to produce such a book at will. So, I was asked if I had contacts that would graciously sponsor the production of the book. This to me is bittersweet. I would love to be a part of something that would be so helpful for the public regarding the reality of microbes (they tend to get bad press in general). However, I’m not one to ask for money…ever.
This has sparked questions in my head about the state of educational media production. S.T.E.M. is all the rage these days and rightly so. As our society progresses, the need for a workforce trained for technical and scientific positions is essential. One example…billboard signs. Growing up, I used to get excited and amazed when I saw a person putting up a new billboard sign. Taking the old one off, applying the new one in its place. However, now these signs are replaced by digital billboards. Who is going to change the billboard advertisement? Someone trained to tear down the old and glue the new one on? Someone with a background in electrical engineering? If there is a problem with the billboard, who will fix it? A carpenter or an engineer? This is just one example.
The STEM push is necessary and welcome in my opinion. However, a quite fitting phrase comes to mind: show me the money. We are throwing money into public school systems that are fueled by bureaucracy and inefficiency. Yet we still have to cut out box tops to support local schools and have several fundraisers a year for a new gym floor. Anyone see the irony?
Put the money where it can be useful. Put it in projects that will encourage our children to pursue a career that will promote curiosity and critical thinking. This has been my soapbox, today sponsored by the letters S, T, E, and M.
“New frontiers of the mind are before us, and if they are pioneered with the same vision, boldness, and drive with which we have waged this war we can create a fuller and more fruitful employment and a fuller and more fruitful life.”–
Almost 70 years later, I feel Bush’s words and recommendations within the Report ring just as relevant. In a time when developed countries have increased funding for research and development in FY2012, TWO countries stood out like sore thumbs for decreasing federal research dollars; the United States and Canada. I wish this report could be redistributed to all members of Congress. In this post, I want to bring attention to some of the most ironic/prophetic points. Let’s get right to it…
The responsibility for basic research in medicine and the underlying sciences, so essential to progress in the war against disease, falls primarily upon the medical schools and universities. Yet we find that the traditional sources of support for medical research in the medical schools and universities, largely endowment income, foundation grants, and private donations, are diminishing and there is no immediate prospect of a change in this trend. Meanwhile, the cost of medical research has been rising. If we are to maintain the progress in medicine which has marked the last 25 years, the Government should extend financial support to basic medical research in the medical schools and in universities.
Bush spoke of the great advancement made in antibiotics with the discovery of penicillin. Today, this quote still rings true, certainly with the growing threat of antibiotic resistant pathogens.
How do we increase this scientific capital? First, we must have plenty of men and women trained in science, for upon them depends both the creation of new knowledge and its application to practical purposes. Second, we must strengthen the centers of basic research which are principally the colleges, universities, and research institutes. These institutions provide the environment which is most conducive to the creation of new scientific knowledge and least under pressure for immediate, tangible results. With some notable exceptions, most research in industry and Government involves application of existing scientific knowledge to practical problems. It is only the colleges, universities, and a few research institutes that devote most of their research efforts to expanding the frontiers of knowledge.
The field of stem cell research promises to deliver truly amazing medical breakthroughs in the coming decades. However, the fundamental research needed must first provide the proof-of-principle necessary for private industry to take note. That is happening according to a recent article published in the journal Blood. Researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Harvard‘s Stem Cell Institute, in collaboration with MIT and Mass General have successfully reprogrammed a type of connective tissue stem cell line, known as mesenchymal stem cells, to produce specific surface proteins and the anti-inflammatory molecule interleukin-10.
To accomplish this, researchers injected a modified form of messenger RNA, the blueprint for protein synthesis in cells. The modified stem cells were injected into mice. Once in the mouse bloodstream, the stem cells successfully targeted sites of inflammation and reduced swelling.
This approach is promising because it targets the site in need of therapeutics and can deliver the needed drug at a level high enough to provide results. This approach is attracting attention from large pharmaceutical companies because of the capability to target the disease site itself.
Oren Levy, Weian Zhao, Luke J. Mortensen, Sarah LeBlanc, Kyle Tsang, Moyu Fu, Joseph A. Phillips, Vinay Sagar, Priya Anandakumaran, Jessica Ngai, Cheryl H. Cui, Peter Eimon, Matthew Angel, Charles P. Lin, Mehmet Fatih Yanik, & Jeffrey M. Karp (2013). mRNA-engineered mesenchymal stem cells for targeted delivery of interleukin-10 to sites of inflammation Blood DOI: 10.1182/blood-2013-04-495119
During the current political environment, R&D budgets are being reduced or frozen. For example, the budget for NIH, the largest public funding program in the U.S., is lower than it was in 2003. The “Plan B” outlined in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (aka sequester) plus the current 6-month continuing resolution cycle employed by Congress has all in the research community scared; not only for their own jobs but also for what it is saying to our citizens and people across the globe. Our ‘leaders’ in Washington no longer consider basic research a priority. In essence, the ‘leaders’ are saying, “We are too worried about our re-election bids to see the big picture and the catastrophic consequences of our short-sightedness”.
The innovations and technologies directly or indirectly resulting from basic research have brought invaluable prosperity to this country and has enriched the lives of each of us directly. Cuts to research are the essentially the same as cuts to flesh. Eventually, the infection at the cut spreads to the entire body. The cut doesn’t suffer, the body suffers. John Donne said it well in his passage, Meditation 17 Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
The bell is tolling in the U.S. and has for some time now. We all suffer when ignoring our research community.
The sixty years between World War II and September 11, 2001 were unparalleled for discovery and innovation even though they were fueled by fear. First, fear of Japan, Germany, and later Russia. After the war was over, a new ominous threat emerged that (in the eyes of most) threatened our future as a country if not defeated, communism. ‘Necessity breeds invention’ sure was true during the Cold War and our Research & Development infrastructure became the envy of other countries.
On the tragic day 2,977 innocent lives died, our nation changed. We awoke to a new, hidden enemy with no country boundaries. It brought us together like nothing before. We were united. But some quickly turned to ideology and misinformation leading us into constant military offenses with no real way to fund them. One of the first schemes was by increasing the maximum allowable interest rate of student loans. Personally, mine went from 2% to 6% overnight.
Later on, other sources were needed to continue funding war campaigns. Although most of this funding was borrowed against our future generations, the rest came from discretionary spending. One of the major spending bills is that for science R&D and energy R&D. When the Human Genome Project was completed in April 2003, America’s largest scientific spending project in history was over. Instead of using these funds for other science and technology programs, no other big science project has ever come to fruition (the Spallation Neutron Source began construction prior to 9-11-01).
This letter is for any and all that have a genuine interest in the future of our country. Many whose livelihood and passion dwells under the umbrella of Research & Development have watched helplessly over the past decade a deterioration in the enterprise that has made the United States the most successful global leader in the history of civilization. This enterprise emerged from one of the darkest tragedies in our nation’s history on December 7, 1941. With great foresight, our leaders knew resilience and ultimately the preservation of our way of life depended not upon naive belief but creativity and innovation among the brightest minds in the country; themselves immigrants brought here by persecution.
Beginning with the Manhattan Project, the U.S. has built unchallenged scientific leadership. The unfortunate irony is that another dark tragedy on September 11, 2001 started its slow downward spiral.