Is the US Party Over?

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

Jan 1, 2008
Robert Palazzo

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.