Is the US Party Over?

The country's fading dominance in life sciences research spells trouble for the whole world.

By | January 1, 2008

If, as Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) has said, the 21st century will be the "century of the life sciences," the United States should probably be credited with ushering in this phenomenon through a large and deliberate investment in biomedical research, through rapidly increasing the National Institutes of Health budget. More quickly than anyone had initially imagined, the human genome was sequenced, unlocking a wealth of information leading to an exponential growth in research discoveries while laying one of the key pillars for the development of the biotechnology industry. The United States trained a new and much larger generation of scientists. The power of biotechnology, in applications ranging from medical to industrial to agricultural, was unveiled and unleashed.

Perhaps most importantly, we saw a tremendous growth in collaboration across national boundaries. A number of factors have contributed to this increasing international collaboration. Perhaps the simplest is the overarching trend of globalization. But data also indicate that the influx of funding to the biomedical sciences has attracted scientific talent from all over the world to the United States for training and employment.

All of this is happening, however, as the United States pulls back. It launched the life sciences revolution, but is now falling behind in its commitment to world leadership in the biological sciences and its responsibility to sustain the momentum. Over the past four years, Congress has flat-funded the NIH budget, and inflation is rapidly eroding our life sciences investment.

The United States has every right to be proud of catalyzing the unprecedented worldwide progress in the life sciences experienced over the past 50 years. Unfortunately, biomedical researchers within the United States are now so caught up in the fierce internal competition needed to simply keep their labs going that they are distracted and unable to focus energy on the innovation and collaboration required to help keep pace in a global life sciences marketplace. With every turn of the funding cycle, in an environment of constrained NIH resources, more ideas are left on the cutting room floor, more researchers' time is spent desperately filling out grant applications, and bright, young scientists are discouraged from pursuing research careers.

One result is that we are already seeing more and more foreign colleagues returning to their own or other nations to seek the new wealth of opportunities. As many scientists return to their home countries, many of those countries are now turning their own national attention, as well as their resources, toward building a robust biomedical research enterprise. Singapore has already made a deliberate and significant commitment to biomedical research, the European Union has articulated a bold vision of establishing leadership in the life sciences, and in a recent article in Cell Notes, Michele Arduenga of Promega estimated that China's investment in biomedical research will triple by 2011.

Competitiveness is not in itself a bad thing. Science has always been driven by open and friendly international competition. In fact, some view science as the only true international cooperation, a result of the open sharing of information and the international peer review system that drives scientific advances. The result is an ever increasing pool of talent, a broadening richness of innovative ideas, and an increasing global investment in biomedical research that will continue to benefit both science and the quality of life throughout the world.

While policymakers may see this as an issue of competitiveness, of the United States losing its edge, from the point of view of global science and humanity, the situation is even more sobering. When the United States invests in research, science and the world benefit; when we are reserved in our investment, progress slows to the detriment of us all.

When it comes to the life sciences, it could be argued that the United States created the gathering storm that we are now trying to rise above, as suggested by the title of a recent National Academies report on global competitiveness. It is imperative that the United States renew its commitment to NIH and other federal life science programs. The rest of the world is celebrating this era of biological discovery. Why isn't the United States hosting the party?

Robert Palazzo is president of FASEB and professor and chair of the biology department at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.


Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 11

January 11, 2008

Professor Palazzo, as you pointed out, the playing field of science is becoming ever more even in this rapidly and continuously globalized world. Therefore, it would be quite monopolistic and arrogant to expect that the U.S. should always dominate in scientific innovations. Also, as you cited, one of the biggest reasons for the declining status of the U.S. as the sole mecca of scientific research is that it can no longer attract or keep some of the brightest talents or hardest workers from the so-called developed countries, simply by selling the U.S. as the best place to work and live in the entire world - which is far from the reality especially for the non-whites, by the way. Another major reason is that the U.S. federal government has become less willing to fund scientific research that frequently returned far less than promised on their grant applications. We cannot blame the government for finally becoming impatient and demanding more cost-effectiveness with the U.S. taxpayers' money. Let's face it, NIH grants and other federally funded scientific grants have become nothing more than pork barrels to fatten the wallets of the "research" institutions and their "research" professors that repeatedly have very little significant results to show for, in the end.
Avatar of: Diane Husic

Diane Husic

Posts: 4

January 15, 2008

I do believe that international competition in science and technology is good, but am surprised that it has not serve to spur this country into playing the game more rigorously. \n\nOne post indicated that it is time for our tax dollars to be used more wisely. We hear over and over the cry for improved education in science and math. This is, in part, due to the need to continue developing players for the worldwide competition in science and technology. Participating in research (be it undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, or citizen scientists) is one of the greatest ways to LEARN science, and to develop the pipeline of scientists and new developments. Yet funding for research that is not "big science" is becoming harder and harder to obtain. This will impact innovation in the long run and discourage more and more of our brightest youth from careers in science. Investing in our future through research and education is wise use of public funds.\n\nBut we are also falling behind as a science-literate society which is even more troubling. We have a deep divide between those who understand technological advances and those who don't. This leads to distrust and misunderstandings, and, sometimes, to public paranoia about new technologies that could actually be extremely important to our future as a race, as a planet. U.S. taxpayers should be crying out because research is not supported in a competitive fashion, but they don't. That disturbs me more than other countries gaining the upper edge in technology.\n\n
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 1

January 15, 2008

Academic research funded by both NIH and EPA is an incestuous pork barrel that serves primarily to keep the lights on at our clunky public universities. Universities that decades ago, traded their mission to educate for empire building and spin off IPOs. President Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, what exactly do we have to show for the $1B NCI has squandered since then? I say, bring on the international competition!
Avatar of: Daniel Dvorkin

Daniel Dvorkin

Posts: 20

January 15, 2008

Anonymous poster, how exactly do you suggest that cost-effectiveness in pure research be measured? The history of science strongly argues that the best way to get good results is to educate intelligent, curious people and turn them loose on problems that interest them. The technological fruits of this research may not be apparent for years, decades, or even centuries after the research is done. Limiting ourselves to research that meets short-term cost-benefit analysis is a sure way to slow and eventually stop the march of scientific progress that has largely created the modern world.\n\nAs for why the US should "host the party" -- I don't think anyone is seriously arguing that the US should be the sole or even main source of scientific advancement. But as the world's richest nation, which has previously maintained a high level of committment to funding both pure and applied research, and which has an enormous and very effective research establishment built up with decades of painstaking work, we have a responsibility not to turn our backs on it now.
Avatar of: Francis Scalzi

Francis Scalzi

Posts: 2

January 15, 2008

Having been subjected a religious fundamentalist orientation in the White House, the Pentagon, our military, much of our legislature, and large parts of our population, the U S for the past seven years (or more) is experiencing serious deleterious effects on the furthering of science, particularly the biomedical sciences, and the failure of government agencies and departments to foster its advancement and proper surveilance of the health care of our public. Unfounded, untrue, and cynical comments like one of the above are an indication of the slide in appreciation of biomed research and science literacy at home. Wide swaths of the U S public have been developing outright anti-science attitudes. When such a large percentage of our public either rejects evolutionary principals or find them suspicious, and in a time when all of the biological sciences and medicine are based on the fundamentals of Darwinian evolution, while nearly half the U S public is wallowing in ignorance and denial, U S science is in trouble. Anyone browsing the literature in the physical and biological sciences has emphatically marked the distinct decline in participation by U S born scientists and U S science institutions. And the trend has been accelerating. Europe and the Far East are moving ahead, while our young are increasingly ill taught fundamental scientific principles or ignore them altogether - - even at the undergraduate baccalaureate level. If anything, this article is understated. Anyone involved in teaching science at any stage below the graduate level can see the future coming: a country populated by hoards of science illiterates when at the same time their welfare and very lives depend on a modicum of knowledge and appreciation of science and technology.
Avatar of: Dung Le

Dung Le

Posts: 17

January 16, 2008

In the view of flat-budget and inflation, may I suggest a trend of "Outsourcing biomedical research"?\n\nIT and Biotech Corps have been doing this for years.\n\nThere have been a larger number of American trained Scientists headed back their home, why dont we rely on them to have researches done at lower cost but still keep the quality up with American standard?\n\nIf this should be done, it will be a win-win for USA and the host countries as well as mankind!\n\nIf you think there are barriers, please point them out!\n\nThanks
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 6

January 17, 2008

USA is losing his empire to European Union as its government is obnubilated by the war and put focus exclusively on war. Simply bring back the war $B to education, health, and R&D and you will have a prosperous nation again.
Avatar of: anonymous poster

anonymous poster

Posts: 11

January 22, 2008

The U.S. has always been (and probably will remain) a nation of capitalism, foremost, whose main motivation for scientific research has been rapid discoveries that can be converted to quick commercial, military, or political gains. Your seemingly "science for science's sake" argument for contnuously or indefinitely funding basic research with no preconceived commercial outcomes still apply more to Europe than the U.S. We only to need remember that the U.S. government's investments into its space program was politically motivated to compete with the Russians and into its cancer research was financially motivated to save the immense cost of treating the disease, as examples of how the basic science research with the simply idealistic, and even naive, goals of scientific discoveries have been practically neglected or shunned by the federal government funding. Even for a fund application of purely basic research, it has become a de facto requirement to state even a remotely possible "practical" benefit from such research, in order to secure the federal funding support. Otherwise, the chance to get the research fund is from slim to none, in the U.S., now.

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