Why federal investment is key to scientific and societal progress

Written by  Chris Brown
Chris Brown 350x400 copyBy Christopher S. Brown, Ph.D.
Vice President for Research 

Scientific discoveries rarely reach the front page of the nation’s newspapers, but they play a vital role in our lives every day. Antibiotics have made many once-fatal diseases curable. In the mid-1900s, the Third Agricultural Revolution helped American farmers massively increase their productivity and meet the needs of a rapidly growing global population. More recently, the internet not only created a new industry but transformed our entire way of life. These are just a few of discoveries we take for granted today.

Make no mistake: they were monumental. They bolstered America’s place in the world, fueled economic growth, and improved the human condition.   Another example is UAB’s groundbreaking research on the origin of HIV in humans and on effective drug combinations to treat this deadly disease.  These seminal research discoveries, enabled with federal support, were critical in developing current-day treatments that save millions of lives worldwide.  In this and so many other scientific efforts, federal investment was key to success.

Perhaps that is why public support for science is so robust. A new national poll released this week shows that 88 percent of Americans say it is important for the federal government to invest in science and technology research. The poll also found that 86 percent of Americans would support an increase in federal funding for science and technology every year for the next decade. A vast majority of those polled even said they would view a congressional candidate more favorably if they supported increased federal investment in science. At a time when the country seems more divided than ever, almost all Americans agree that the U.S. government should support science. It’s no surprise why.

The challenges we face today… require even greater commitment as we face global competitors who aim to challenge U.S. leadership in science and technology via massive investments.

Consider research we have underway at UAB, where I serve as vice president for research. UAB engineers are teaming up with the U.S. Army to develop autonomous, off-road vehicle mobility to make our military and our allies more effective. UAB researchers are working with the National Institutes of Health to develop life-changing therapies for diseases like diabetes, which afflicts 15 percent of Alabamians. UAB faculty and staff are collaborating through the UAB/Lakeshore Research Collaborative to conduct Centers for Disease Control-supported studies that improve the quality of life for people with physically disabling conditions. These examples represent some of the best research at UAB – more than 75 percent of which is federally supported. Along the way, Alabama’s congressional delegation — particularly senior Senator Richard Shelby — has been vital in ensuring broad-based federal investment in science to the benefit of the country and our state.

We work hard to ensure UAB’s scientific research translates into societal impacts. By helping students, faculty and staff commercialize their work, our Bill L. Harbert Institute for Innovation and Entrepreneurship ensures that more discoveries made in the lab transform the world outside it. Just last year, the institute supported nine startups, issued 38 patents and executed 42 commercial licenses — all of which have the potential to fuel job creation and economic growth across Alabama.

Science can tackle many other problems, too. Think of some of today’s grand challenges:

  • More than 70,000 Americans lose their lives to drug overdoses each year while the nation’s opioid crisis continues to rage unabated, including in Alabama;
  • Disparities in access to health care and healthy environments plague our most vulnerable populations;
  • Climate change and ocean acidification are creating economic and ecological disasters;
  • Our national security faces large and growing threats in cyberspace.

It will take broad-based research, effective community engagement and societal acceptance of the solutions to make headway against these problems.

At a time when the country seems more divided than ever, almost all Americans agree that the U.S. government should support science.

Federally funded research may not always spark immediate breakthroughs, but investments in the process of discovery for potential addiction therapies, equitable access to health care, mitigation of climate-change effects, and cybersecurity solutions hold the promise of radically reshaping society for the better.

These are certainly ambitious undertakings. We know science can address challenges of this magnitude because we have done it before: eradicating polio in the vast majority of the world; landing a man on the moon and returning him safely; mapping the human genome. These efforts may have seemed fanciful when they launched — they were not.  They did, however, require societywide commitment to seeing each vision into fruition.

The challenges we face today are no less vexing. If anything, they require even greater commitment as we face global competitors who aim to challenge U.S. leadership in science and technology via massive investments. We have the power to address our most pressing problems and secure our place as the global leader in science and technology, but it will require sustained increases in federal support across the broad spectrum of scientific research. This is why Congress should come together to prioritize increased investment in science and technology as it begins to map out the federal budget for next year.  The public wants it, and our nation needs it.  With that support, UAB will continue in its role as a leader in tackling the nation’s most formidable challenges.