The head of a national organization that advocates for medical research funding will talk Thursday at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute about the role scientists should play in winning the hearts and minds of taxpayers.
“We just can’t rely on science speaking for itself,” Mary Woolley, president and CEO of Research!America, said in a brief phone interview Wednesday. “It’s important for members of the science community to be talking to many nonscientists. … People who don’t have particular science backgrounds are nonetheless interested in what’s happening with their tax dollars and what’s happening on their behalf.”
Woolley’s talk, which begins at 5:30 p.m., is part of the research institute’s distinguished lecture series. It is free and open to the public.
She said she plans “to draw attention to the fact that science isn’t just boring facts and figures and memorization and jargon and difficult-to-understand concepts, but rather it’s something that we all want to see succeed, particularly in the area that we work in, in driving medical progress so that we can overcome this opioid epidemic, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and so many more of the costly and bad diseases and afflictions that all our families face.”
Woolley said that even with recent increases in federal funding for the National Institutes of Health, which underwrite much of the medical research in the U.S., the agency’s budget has the same buying power as it had in 2004 when inflation is factored in.
“It’s not a good place to be,” she said.
Woolley said U.S. research fell behind with a decade of cuts and flat funding. NIH lost funding during the Great Recession. President Donald Trump proposed slashing it again, but Congress has agreed to boost funding by $3 billion this fiscal year.
“That’s going on at the same time other nations — notably China, but others as well — are on a straight upward trajectory of increasing funding for R&D of all kinds, and very much including health-related, for the very simple reason that every nation wants a healthy population,” she said.
Woolley said it is not known how many potential young scientists pursued other careers, and it’s impossible to quantify what went undiscovered.
“You can’t actually prove that we almost had, say, the answer to Alzheimer’s or had a vaccine for HIV/AIDS or have defeated diabetes. We can’t know that,” she said. “But you can know a lot of people didn’t get their chance to make their contribution as a scientist.”
She said scientists now need to build on the momentum of funding increases “so we get the chance to sustain hope for the research community and that translates into hope for patients and families everywhere.”
The Roanoke research institute opened just as the recession was taking hold. Virginia Tech began investing in medical research while other universities were pulling back.
Founding Executive Director Michael Friedlander, who is also Tech’s vice president for health sciences and technology, said that investment aided his ability to lure promising researchers to Roanoke, a place many had not heard of before.
The research institute is now full. A second building is under construction that will allow it to double in size.
Friedlander also has welcomed the public into the facility with its annual “Brain School” and through lectures such as Woolley’s.