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Finding the New Darwin

Scientist Can't Depend on Personal Wealth -- They need federal funding, which has grown alarmingly scarce

by Ethan Dmitrovsky, MD

August 17, 2008
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Science, like sports and politics, has its legends. One of our most beloved is that Charles Darwin let decades pass before he published his landmark "The Origin of Species." Indeed, it was only after he learned that Alfred Russel Wallace independently uncovered the same theories of evolution that Darwin was swayed to publish. Otherwise, he might have waited even longer.

We don't know the source of Darwin's genius, but we do know how he managed to make his discoveries. He benefited from serendipity. But he also had a financial benefactor: his family. By chance of biology, a field he would later influence deeply, Darwin was born into the Wedgwood family, known even today for its artistry in pottery.

Unlike Darwin, most of his contemporaries, including those with comparable talents, were unable to take advantage of their scientific gifts. Their circumstances constrained them while Darwin's freed him to become the unpaid naturalist on the Beagle, the ship that brought him to the Galapagos Islands, where he conducted his research.

Long after Darwin's death, and relatively late in the last century, the United States made the extraordinarily farsighted decision to invest in creating scientific discoveries. The result: a scientific revolution, permitting new knowledge to be widely disseminated. In contrast, Darwin's discovery was first presented to an elite society whose members included naturalists with backgrounds similar to his.
Fortunately, a far different approach now finances science. The merit of scientific work is competitively judged by experts. This means that the very best science is supported, even when it is proposed by those with the very least personal financial means.

And yet in times of budgetary constraints like these, federal funding for science grows scarce. Even though the National Institutes of Health budget was doubled earlier this decade, inflation is taking a toll on scientific research and only about one in 10 federal grant applications is funded. But many meritorious proposals are not funded, resulting in many lost opportunities. Scientists, whose best work is done in a laboratory, instead spend excessive time elsewhere, raising money when they should be pursuing their research.

All this has added intense pressure to the already difficult lives of science researchers. Their sights are too often set on just surviving.

This has an important hidden cost: As the next generation of scientists watches its mentors struggle, many of them grow disheartened and now turn away from their fields because of its insecurity.

The benefits of scientific research help each of us and our families.

We live in an era in which the consequences of unraveling the human genome are becoming known. Remarkable progress is being made in the life sciences. The genes and their protein products that make us humans and unique individuals are being determined. More is being learned about more subjects than ever before. This is no time to turn back -- or to turn aside legitimate, promising proposals.
We are far down the road that will lead us to maintain health and combat disease in ways unimaginable even a decade ago. Novel scientific insights have already led to successful therapies that target the causes and not just the symptoms of disease.

But sustained reductions in federal funding are endangering these discoveries and discouraging scientists. Not only will diversity of the scientific community suffer, but also its vibrancy. We need a renewed commitment to scientific funding and a new, long-term view of this funding.

It has taken a long time to build our scientific enterprise, but it would take a short time to break it. We can create a scientific corps that will improve higher education and public health, advance the public interest by stimulating the economy and ensure homeland security, if only we will take the necessary steps to fund the current generation of researchers and nurture the next one. We need only look to other countries to see how their substantial scientific investments could jeopardize our current dominance.

We are only beginning to see the benefits of the life science revolution. Much has changed since Darwin's time. More powerful tools are now in hand and these are being intelligently used. Even as virtues of a team approach in science are championed, the role of an exceptional scientist, like Darwin, endures.

Federal funds have broadened the pool of outstanding individuals who become scientists. Their contributions are seen from the long list of discoveries made that promise to keep us healthy. The national commitment to use public funds to support science must be preserved and built upon. We might even have the good fortune to discover the Darwins of our time.

Ethan Dmitrovsky is a physician-scientist and American Cancer Society Professor at Dartmouth Medical School and Norris Cotton Cancer Center at DHMC.

2008 Post Gazette Publishing Company.