Answering the Unanswered: Why We Need to Fund Basic Science Research

Campaign for Cures

The Campaign for Cures Election 2016 blog features news, analysis, commentary and data about the presidential candidates and congressional races in key states on issues relevant to medical progress. Janice Lloyd, former USA Today senior editor and health reporter, manages The Campaign for Cures blog. You can reach Janice at campaignforcures@gmail.com.   Follow Campaign for Cures, a national voter education initiative, on Twitter and Facebook and visit www.campaignforcures.org

Answering the Unanswered: Why We Need to Fund Basic Science Research

By: 
Maria Perica

Upon arriving at New York University in 2012, I was eager to spend the next four years of undergrad exploring my love of science and research. Before my second year of college had even started, I had chosen my neuroscience major and decided that I wanted to start volunteering as a research assistant in a neuroscience laboratory. I felt certain of my intent to someday pursue a graduate degree that would allow me to conduct basic science research for the rest of my life.

I continued to volunteer in the lab for two years and learn from my mentor, who pushed me to work hard and pursue any opportunity that was given to me. We studied the cognitive abilities of an animal model of schizophrenia, supported by funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). By the time I had graduated college in May of this year, I was awarded three undergraduate research awards by NYU, presented at three conferences, and co-authored a paper that was recently accepted for publication in a neuroscience journal. I was successful in my research as an undergraduate, and I found the scientific process to be exciting. Unfortunately, this is not what my more veteran colleagues were experiencing.

As I spoke to more post-doctoral researchers and graduate students pursuing their PhDs, the overall message I received was a discouraging one. I distinctly remember talking to my mentor, a young post-doctoral researcher, about my desire to pursue a PhD in basic neuroscience research. “Don’t do it unless you really can’t see yourself doing anything else,” she told me. “Maybe consider some other options first.”

Her advice took me by surprise. As a young scientist who was fascinated by the brain and driven to pursue answers to difficult questions, I had assumed that I would someday have my own lab where I could study what interested me and contribute to a fast-growing body of knowledge. I looked up to my mentor as a role model, as she was brilliant and hard-working, with a real passion for her job. However, when she started telling me about her attempts to find a more stable academic position so she could move on from temporary, underpaid post-doctoral positions, I realized that a love of science was no longer enough to secure young scientists a steady future.

Prior to the 2008 economic crisis, federal funding for the National Institutes of Health (NIH) steadily increased with each new fiscal year. Following the economic downturn, the NIH budget remained relatively flat and was impacted by sequestration and automatic budget cuts, which led to less money for innovative research to keep labs open, and create new jobs for increasing numbers of young scientists. Basic science research has been especially hard hit, since this research involves expanding a broad knowledge base as opposed to targeting problems that may appear more immediately profitable. However, all research is critical, and time and time again, scientists are surprised by the implications of small basic science discoveries. During my time in college, I personally witnessed the field of neuroscience change forever with the awarding of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine to a team of neuroscientists for the discovery of grid cells and place cells, the brain’s version of a GPS. This discovery was pivotal in changing the way researchers understand how groups of cells in the brain function to allow us to think and perceive, and will inform future research, including potential clinical applications, for years to come.

As future researchers make decisions about their careers, the field continues to appear uncertain. This needs to change. Recently, small steps have been taken in the right direction, with NIH receiving a significant increase in the FY16 spending bill, but more needs to be done. Research institutions still do not have adequate funding and the job market is still not attractive to young scientists, especially as more and more students are burdened by mountains of debt upon graduation.

It is important that we make it known to our candidates that research is a high priority for this nation. This is why Campaign for Cures works to educate voters on their candidates’ stances. As election season rolls on, learn more about where your candidates stand on research, and if they have not yet made their position known, ask them. Research has the ability to change the world. Let’s continue to inspire the next generation of scientists to make the next generation of discoveries.

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Presidential Candidates Should Participate in Debate on Science

 
Source: A Research!America and ScienceDebate.org poll of U.S. adults conducted in partnership with Zogby Analytics in September 2015.

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