Canary in the research lab  pg. 5

Given that immigrants have long infused lifeblood into American science—in 2008, for instance, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry went to Chinese-American Roger Tsien, Ph.D., and the Nobel Prize for Physics to Japanese-American Yoichiro Nambu, D.Sc. -- the report questioned the wisdom of rewarding brilliance in the laboratory by sending scientists back to their home countries, many of which don’t have the resources to support high-level research.

“There are lots of ways that we in the United States are shooting ourselves in the foot,” says Bruce Alberts, Ph.D., professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, and past president of the National Academy of Sciences.

30 to 1 return

Why does it seem so hard to make a case for investing in biomedical science?

After all, notes John Oates, M.D., professor of Medicine and Pharmacology at Vanderbilt, thanks to basic biomedical research, rheumatic heart disease “almost doesn’t exist in the United States today because of antibiotics.” The iron lung, which enabled victims of polio to breathe, has been retired.

Among the most dramatic success stories is the treatment of cardiovascular disease, which, in the past 20 years, has reduced the annual heart disease death rate by 600,000—and all for a research investment of $30 per American, Hamm says.

Writing in the 2003 book, “Measuring the gains from medical research,” Harvard economics professor David Cutler, Ph.D., and graduate student Srikanth Kadiyala estimated a 30 to 1 return on that investment. “Our unambiguous conclusion is that medical research on cardiovascular disease is clearly worth the cost,” they concluded. New cancer diagnoses and cancer death rates also have fallen in recent years. However, the collection of diseases known as cancer still kills 560,000 Americans annually, and there are increasing calls for revamping the entire research enterprise in order to achieve faster progress against them.

This issue was raised last May during the annual Forum on Science and Technology Policy in Washington, D.C., organized by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

As quoted by Chemical and Engineering News, Christopher Hill, Ph.D., professor of public policy and technology at George Mason University, said the public’s inability to understand what scientists are doing and a growing frustration with the “failure” of science and technology to solve the world's major problems will “make the public less likely to remain convinced that expenditures on science and technology are an unalloyed good thing.”.

That frustration may result in a shifting of funds to “problem-solving research,” Hill predicted.

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