With talk of research budgets doubling, and the country in the midst of a revolution in technology, science, and health care, the future seems bright for scientific research.
Supporters of increased research funding say that Congress has heard their message that a healthy research sector is important for the nation’s economy, its overall well-being, and its future.
The immediate priority, according to Harvard’s Senior Director of Federal and State Relations Kevin Casey, is ensuring that the current funding flow is not an aberration, particularly the large increases for the National Science Foundation (NSF).
“I think the goal will be to capture the moment on NSF and build on this year’s increases,” Casey said. “There’s a sense that we have turned a corner and put science as an investment in people’s minds – and not just that it’s nice if we can afford it.”
The true test of the nation’s commitment to science funding won’t come until the next economic downturn, when the current federal budget surplus threatens to turn into a deficit and lawmakers start looking for ways to trim federal spending.
“A real sign of having changed the position (of science as a budget priority) would be if in an economic downturn members of Congress decided, ‘We’re still going to increase science funding because that’s an investment in our future.'”
–Kevin Casey, Harvard’s Senior Director of Federal and State Relations
“A real sign of having changed the position (of science as a budget priority) would be if in an economic downturn members of Congress decided, ‘We’re still going to increase science funding because that’s an investment in our future,'” Casey said.
Perhaps inevitably, more government dollars mean more government oversight. Casey said he expects a strong push for accountability in administering federal grants, as well as increased federal oversight of experiments involving human subjects. Another area of concern among government officials as well as university and hospital administrators involves conflicts of interest among researchers receiving industry research dollars whose work has a potential commercial application.
The increased oversight has been evident already at Harvard and other universities across the country, where National Institutes of Health (NIH) officials have made “not-for-cause” and “proactive” site visits, a break from their previous practice of inspecting laboratories only when they received complaints, Casey said.
In addition to the visits, the Public Health Service (PHS), of which NIH is a key component, will be requiring mandatory training programs by the fall of 2003 for all researchers, technicians, and other key personnel involved in PHS-funded research, according to Elizabeth Mora, Harvard’s director of sponsored research.
“I think what we’ll see is more required training and education at all levels,” Mora said.
Another danger, most agree, is in promising spectacular results in set time frames. This could lead to unrealistic expectations and funding cuts when the goods aren’t delivered. The Human Genome Project, for example, has sparked much talk about genetic cures for disease, something scientists say is many years away.
“That is a very dangerous route to travel,” said Bertha Madras, professor of psychobiology in Harvard Medical School’s Department of Psychiatry. “We cannot and should not promise a time frame, that within five or 20 years we will ‘cure’ a particular disease. All we can say with certainty is that we now have information, direction, and the technology to understand diseases at a level never before imagined.”
Harvard Vice President for Government, Community and Public Affairs Paul Grogan said the education effort needs to continue because it’s impossible to tell what the future holds.
“As gratifying as the results are this year, the fact of the matter is that there are uncharted waters ahead,” Grogan said. “A new administration, a new Congress with seeming deep polarization, and a possible slowing of the economy should be a wake-up call that our work is just beginning.”