In a whirlwind tour through UW Medicine’s research laboratories in South Lake Union, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), swung easily through a show-and-tell that ranged from a dish full of lab-created beating human heart cells to a gene-deletion step in deciphering how immune systems respond to scary viruses such as dengue and Ebola.
Collins, a physician and geneticist who formerly led the Human Genome Project, had the science stuff down cold — although he graciously insisted that he always learns something new when he gets out of the other Washington.
He and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray were in Seattle on Tuesday on a different mission: to impress upon everyone the seriousness of a potential budget crisis for NIH.
Part pep rally and part warning, their visit seemed designed to mobilize scientists to get on the stump for medical research, which Murray and Collins agreed is key to the economy, the future health of the nation and America’s global leadership.
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Cuts in NIH’s budget could cripple Washington state’s robust public and private biomedical research industry, which received $835 million last year from the NIH, making Washington the eighth-highest state in funding, Murray said.
“I think it’s at a particularly crucial juncture,” Collins said. “If there was a moment to kind of raise consciousness, this is kind of the moment to do that.”
Murray brilliantly managed to craft a window of relief from the federal budget sequester with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., Collins noted, but that will end in 2015.
And Collins worries that the sequester, which knocked the stuffing out of already diminished NIH funding, will come “roaring back, and all of this will go even deeper into difficulty,” he said. Already, a research project’s chance of funding has plummeted from 40 percent in 1979 to about 16 percent. “We’re leaving half the good science on the table,” he said.
“This is such a great investment of public dollars, with returns that help people in terms of medical advances and also stimulate the economy. What’s not to like here?“ Collins asked rhetorically. “And yet, we have been progressively underinvesting in what has been a great American success story.”
Right now, Murray told the crowd that came to hear her and Collins at the UW, Washington is a model in research and in building collaborative partnerships that encourage innovation.
Funding for research is an investment in future economic growth, Murray said. But public research funding as a percentage of GDP is now seventh from the bottom of 34 industrialized nations, with China gearing up fast.
“If the U.S. was a business, investments in future economic growth would be the last thing we would cut,” Murray said.
Securing funding for the NIH, she warned, will be a “very uphill battle.”
That analysis worried many researchers who gathered in the South Lake Union auditorium to hear Murray and Collins.
Like the UW’s Dr. Charles Murry, who estimates that the heart-muscle cells his lab has created from embryonic stem cells are about four years from human trials, or Michael Gale, whose immunology lab focuses on current and upcoming viruses, many depend on NIH funding.
So what could scientists do, one asked Collins, to change the culture in the U.S., which seems increasingly anti-science, with its skepticism about climate change and evolution? “We have a culture that seems to be lacking in its commitment and understanding and love of science,” the man noted.
Collins, who met with graduate students and postdoctoral students earlier in the day, said they asked the same question.
And he had answers — several of them.
He pointed to what he called the “deterioration of K-12 education” over the years, with few students able to grasp what it means to develop evidence or having a basic understanding of statistics.
“Talented members of the media” can help bridge the science-literacy gap, Collins added, “but the media is under terrible pressure. A lot of the great science writers are no longer out there anymore; they’re getting squeezed. Nobody’s firing sports writers, but the science reporters seem to be the first ones to go.”
And then, of course, there are the scientists themselves, Collins said.
“It seems to me that we all have to spend more of our time, perhaps, as ambassadors for science literacy — trying to explain what we do and why it matters,” he answered. “Scientists aren’t always as good at that as perhaps we might be.”
Those who work in science may have to think of this as part of their jobs, he suggested — “to take as part of your responsibility that given the chance, you go to a high school and talk about what you do, or you show up at the Rotary club, and we all sort of take this collectively under our own wing. … We all have to be part of the solution.”