Something to Cheer About
Why support biomedical research?
By Ilene Raymond Rush
Last week my 16-year-old son and I played hooky from work and school to listen to Senator Barack Obama address voters at a rally in nearby Abington, Pennsylvania.
To shouts of approval from the mainly partisan gathering, the presidential candidate presented his plans to deal with the horrific economic losses on Wall Street and Main Street, to spur job creation, and to develop a universal health care plan for all Americans.
Cheers rose at his proposals to aid students in paying for their college tuition costs, to repair the nation's crumbling infrastructure, and to investigate and fund alternate energy sources with an aim towards energy independence.
But one pledge was met with deafening silence from those gathered on the suburban high school football field.
Obama's promise to dramatically increase funding to support basic medical research for improved diagnostics, treatments and cures for chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, and AIDS was received with a friendly, yet slightly puzzled silence.
I thought it might be a fluke. Yet when his pledge was repeated the next day at a free "Get Out the Vote" Springsteen concert on the Parkway in Philadelphia, I began to wonder why. Given the importance of basic scientific research into diseases like type 2 diabetes, why such a lukewarm response from the otherwise hyped-up crowd?
Over the past four years, under the current administration, the amount of funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which supports a large swathe of the nation's biomedical research, has slipped steadily downward. Although the actual amount of money for research has risen incrementally every year, the slight increases have been eaten away by inflation, leading to a consistent dip in support for even the country's top research centers.
Earlier this year, Congress did endorse large increases for the NIH. But according to the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in real terms, the final funding for fiscal year 2009 will most likely continue to decline for the fifth year in a row.
With reduced budgets, biomedical research labs have been left to scramble for limited resources; cuts have reduced funding to innovative proposals as well as curtailing ongoing projects. When combined with the limiting regulations on stem cell research, the nation's standing as the top global center for biomedical research has been put – for the first time – in jeopardy.
As a medical/science writer who has followed funding issues for several years, what I heard in the audience's silence to Senator Obama's words troubled me, even as I understood its roots.
Deeply worried about the practical issues of an economy headed towards a tough recession, two ongoing and unresolved wars, high energy costs, a lack of affordable health care coverage and job security, voters can't be faulted for finding funding for biomedical funding peripheral to their daily and more pressing concerns.
Plus, to be honest, molecular and genetic research is not exactly ‘sexy'. Researchers rarely take the time to explain their findings to the public and when they do, few of us have the expertise to understand their often-technical breakthroughs.
Yet, despite all of this, if you are over fifty and in good health with a chronic disease like type 2 diabetes – and more and more of us fit that profile - basic biomedical research is pretty much responsible for your continued well-being. As someone with two chronic diseases – type 2 diabetes and bipolar II - the mention of increased attention to biomedical research in a stump speech struck me as a cause for applause.
As the child of a father with often-uncontrolled type 2 diabetes, I am a first-hand witness to the changes in diabetes treatment over the past fifty years. As a mother-to-be with gestational diabetes in my 30's, I benefited from many new research findings, from the importance of tight glucose monitoring to the convenience of early glucose meters. As a woman with type 2 diabetes now in my early 50's, I am benefiting every day from strategies in exercise, nutrition and medication spurred by scientific research. And given recent genetic discoveries I feel certain that greater and more exciting answers are to come.
As we evaluate candidates during this crucial election season, it's understandable that the kitchen table issues that directly touch our family play a large role in our final choices. Funding and supporting NIH scientists may not be on the top of that list.
But candidates who concern themselves with issues like supporting biomedical research show an important commitment to the future health of citizens, insuring that we improve and evolve our strategies in fighting disease.
Biomedical research may not be ‘sexy', but the bottom line is that research improves and saves lives.
Which, in my book, is always something to cheer about.
dLife's Daily Living columnists are not all medical experts, but everyday people living with diabetes and sharing their personal experiences. While their method of diabetes management may work for them, everyone is different. Please consult with your diabetes care team to find out.
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