Getting What’s Wished For

April 25th, 2005

Posted by: Roger Pielke, Jr.

Early last month a group of 750 scientists signed an open letter to the head of the National Institutes of Health protesting a shift in priorities toward biodefense research and away from some public health research. The letter, which was published in Science, stated, “The diversion of research funds from projects of high public-health importance to projects of high biodefense but low public-health importance represents a misdirection of NIH priorities and a crisis for NIH-supported microbiological research.” In other words, the letter suggests that societal needs should play some role in setting research priorities. To support the claim of relative relevance, an appendix to the letter provided a comparison of the number of cases and deaths associated with diseases.

In last week’s Nature a Columbia University researcher warns in a letter of the perils of appealing to societal criteria in justifying research priorities:

“I find it striking that those who protest against the funding of biodefence research are proposing instead that public-health menaces should be given the highest priority. By this standard, many of the letter’s signatories should voluntarily return their funding for research on Bacillus subtilis, Escherichia coli and other non pathogens so that it can be appropriately directed towards the obvious public-health threats of HIV and tuberculosis.”

He later states, “Using body counts (“Bioweapons agents cause, on average, zero deaths per year”) may be useful in the short term to frame the debate, but I fear they will be damaging in the long run. How many of us want to be asked, when our next grant is reviewed: “How many people did your bug kill last year?”. I certainly don’t. If basic research is relevant to the health of the nation, then make the case that it is so.”

Of course, the Columbia researcher is correct that if scientists start
invoking societal needs to justify research priorities, it won’t be long before someone interested in targeting science on societal needs raises the notion of the “90/10 gap” (i.e., 90% of global health research funding goes to support research that affects 10% of the global population), and proposes some really dramatic changes to research funding priorities. Bloodless arguments for basic research allow researchers to dodge making any explicit claims about the societal benefits or outcomes research. This of course makes it difficult for policy makers to make effective judgments about competing scientific priorities. It also makes it difficult to target science on areas of societal need.

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