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GUEST OPINION: Science struggles for funding

  • 5/23/2007: A1: Simon Melov

    Simon Melov Buck Institute Researcher

When Petaluma's Simon Melov was a young lad in Australia washing dishes with his grandmother, he noticed his hands looked different than hers. That simple observation sparked his curiosity and a career in biology that has led him to the Buck Institute for Research on Aging in Novato, where he studies the effects of compounds on age-related diseases and conditions. He recently was featured in a Press Democrat article ("Old mice feel young at heart in drug study," June 12) and received international attention for his discovery that rapamycin can improve heart function in aging mice.

We need scientists like Melov. They improve our lives, health and economy. They teach our kids the value of science to society. Research scientists typically require federal funds to test their hypotheses as well as to compete for tenure and scientific acceptance. They spend inordinate amounts of time writing grant applications to agencies such as the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. If they don't get the grants, they often lose their labs and faculty positions.

A dark cloud now hovers over Melov and our nation's researchers. In March, the federal government enacted something called "sequestration," which indiscriminately reduces the budget for almost all forms of domestic and defense spending. Federal agencies that fund the work of Melov and many other scientists received a mandatory cut of 5 percent to 7 percent.

Although a seemingly small amount, sequestration comes on the back of a 20 percent reduction in science funding over the past decade. The upshot of such reductions on science is staggering, slowing the flow of new innovations, technologies and advances in medical care. Research projects that are underfunded or delayed often are lost forever.

When Melov was entering science as a career, he had a one in four chance of getting a grant. Now, with all the cuts, it's one in 10. Fortunately, Melov is in that top 10 percent of researchers: He recently received notice that his NIH application to study age-related bone loss received a high score and is likely to get funded. This good news was tempered by a warning that because of sequestration-related funding cuts, his grant will automatically be reduced 15 percent. This cut will compromise the research project and eliminate a technical position.

All of us are harmed by budget reductions to scientific research. Yet what can we do about it? What options are there? The federal government has been our main source of funding for science since World War II, and this has served our country well: Our economy, lifestyle and health have improved due to a sustained federal budget to support research. Yet Congress is now willing to impulsively cut into these vulnerable budgets with the intention of reducing the size of government. Thus, we need to act now.

We all can do something to help our scientific communities continue to succeed. We need outspoken individuals who know how to protest the cuts to the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Energy Department. We need those who have the financial capacity to make or increase donations to research institutions to fund these labs and their students. We need business innovators to show us new models for supporting science using, for example, the Internet and social media.

All of us can help by simply following and talking about what is happening in science across the country and in our area. To this end, let me know if you would like to help set up and attend a monthly informal science cafe meeting.

Finally, encourage Melov and his colleagues to keep up the good fight on behalf of all of us attempting to age gracefully and productively in the North Bay.

,i>Dennis Mangan is a retired program driector for the National Institutes of Health, a former associate dean for research at the University of Southern California and is now a science communication adviser living in Santa Rosa. Email him at chalk.talk.science@gmail.com.

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